UF, Florida A&M launch institute to promote better health, job training

Winter chills couldn’t keep a handful of southeast Gainesville parishioners away from church one dreary evening in January. They didn’t want to miss their time of fellowship.

For an hour, Trollyn Gillins, 49, led the group through a series of jumping jacks, leg lifts, crunches and other moves she had learned from another church member at Open Door Ministries.

In the year since she started going to church to exercise, Gillins has been able to stop taking one of her two blood pressure medicines, on the recommendation of her doctor. Before, she used to get exhausted easily, but now she can walk 3 miles with ease and line dance for more than an hour.

[videobox video=”http://media.news.health.ufl.edu/video/020211_Health-Coaches.m4v”] video: Chris Bilowich, UF HSC Pharmacy News [/videobox]

Now, thanks to a $600,000 grant to the University of Florida and Florida A&M University, more people like Gillins will gain skills and knowledge that can help them take charge of their health.

The award, from the State University System Board of Governors, funded the launch of the Community Health Workers Training and Research Institute, which seeks to help people improve their health while acquiring marketable skills that can be translated into job opportunities within the health care field.

The institute will train people to become community health workers who can educate themselves and others about healthful behaviors. That will increase the supply of health workers and boost the chances for unemployed, underemployed or disabled persons to find work, particularly in rural, medically underserved areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities.

Community Health Workers Training and Research Institute grant recipients Cynthia Harris, Ph.D., of Florida A & M University, Carolyn Tucker, Ph.D., of University of Florida, Alma Dixon, Ed.D., of Bethune-Cookman University and Folakemi T. Odedina, Ph.D., of UF. (Photo by Jesse Jones / UF)

“Not only will the institute help Florida address its obesity and other health-related problems,” said co-principal investigator Carolyn Tucker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and community health and family medicine, “it will also help address the state’s unemployment situation.”

Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Pharmacy and outreach director for the College of Medicine’s Prostate Disease Center, and Cynthia Harris, Ph.D., a professor at Florida A&M, are the other principal investigators in the study. Alma Dixon, Ed.D., R.N., leads the efforts at Bethune-Cookman University, one of the research partners.

“This grant is the fruit of more than 10 years of research partnership between UF and Florida A&M,” said UF College of Pharmacy Dean William Riffee, Ph.D. “We are proud that our college is a part of this effort to end health care disparities in our state.”

Training at the institute will center on a health education approach that Tucker, director of the UF Health Disparities Research and Intervention Program, developed and has implemented across the country. Called the Health-Smart Behavior Program, it promotes increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and water; reduced intake of fatty, sugary and salty foods and sugary beverages; and increased physical activity.

Institute leaders aim to develop a credentialing program for community health workers that is recognized statewide and used as a national model. Graduates will get assistance finding jobs within local health systems and service organizations.

“The institute will empower individuals to improve their health, their communities, and, in turn, the state of Florida,” said Michael Good, M.D., dean of the UF College of Medicine. “This is a fine example of how strong collaborations between researchers and communities can give people the tools they need to change their lives for the better.”

Initially, the institute, which also has the support of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Paul D’Anieri, Ph.D., will train at least 360 health workers in Alachua, Gadsden and Volusia counties over eight months. People like Betty James, 63, whose cholesterol levels and overall health and fitness have improved since she became a “health empowerment coach” at Open Door Ministries.

“Sometimes if you know the person who’s giving you information, you’re more relaxed and more receptive to what they’re telling you,” she said.