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Images from the Mission Program graduation on March 4, 2023. View additional photos here. Photos by Stephen Ide/ONE Neighborhood Builders

By Stephen Ide
ONE Neighborhood Builders

Leah Andrade shared how her experience with homelessness has turned into a career helping others who face similar circumstances.

Andrade said she was proud to be a member of the first graduating class of the Mission Program, a five-week pre-apprenticeship course offered by ONE Neighborhood Builders, with mentorship and guidance from a dozen local agencies.

At the commencement for 12 Mission Program graduates on Friday, March 3, 2023, the room was filled with smiles, tears, and hope for people who know their communities and have a desire to give back.

Andrade spoke of how she learned to administer Narcan to persons experiencing an overdose and became certified as a mental health care first-aider. Those are tools, she said, that she can apply in her everyday life.

Andrade chose to mentor with Crossroads RI, a nonprofit that focuses on homelessness, because she had once experienced homelessness herself, she said.

After completing her 40 hours of instruction and mentorship, she said she was hired by Crossroads and “will be one of the first faces people will see when they come through the door. I hope I can make a difference.”

The Mission Program is the first of its kind, and was supported by five trainers from organizations across Providence, including United Way of Rhode Island, Lifespan, Rhode Island Parent Information Network (RIPIN), Project Weber, and House of Hope CDC. Each organization offers expertise critical to careers in community health, including motivational interviewing, harm reduction, and mental health first aid, among others. The trainers each spent 8-hour days with the 12 cohort members, providing a total of 40 hours of instruction and mentorship over the course of the five weeks.

Community Health Workers play a pivotal role in communities because they are trained, knowledgeable frontline workers who are also neighbors. They understand community context and provide a bridge between people and the health and social services organizations in their community. This improves overall health and quality of life.

Six additional organizations served as collaborators on the project by mentoring pre-apprentices. They included Crossroads RI, Providence Housing Authority, Providence Community Health Centers, Providence Public Libraries, Olneyville Neighborhood Association, and The Autism Project.

ONE|NB’s graduation program on Friday was hosted by Belinda Philippe, Director of Community Building & Operations; Karen Zuñiga, Assistant Director of Community Health Integration; and Dennis Hermida-Gonzalez, Community Health Project Manager. They congratulated the graduates: “When I started my CHW career, I never would have imagined that I would have ever got the opportunity to be able to work in this program and see it to fruition and stand here today and be able to welcome you here,” Hermida-Gonzalez said. “Though this is your start, the sky is the limit on where you take this.”

Philippe expressed gratitude for the interest of mentors and participants in the Mission Program. “There’s something to be said about the value of somebody who has lived experience because nobody can change that.” Philippe highlighted the success of CHWs at ONE|NB, including those who have been promoted to other opportunities.

One of those individuals is Zuñiga, a former CHW. She told the graduates that committing to anything can be difficult, but that she was proud of the program and of them. She thanked the mentors and organizations for caring about the community. “I hope that you know that you are about to embark in changing so many people’s lives… The ONE|NB team is here for you no matter what.”

Several of the graduates stepped to the front of the room to talk about their experiences.

For Digna Ester Zayas Vasquez, the Mission Program became an opportunity to give back.

She said she always believed that her life experiences would one day help others. And after having open heart surgery six months ago, she decided to pursue her calling of helping women and families.

She said the Mission Program has given her the opportunity to turn her life experiences into a career and give back to her community.

Luisa Ganeto said she recently joined a program for behavioral health and career pathways, something she had been looking for for many years.

Ganeto said she joined the program with a friend, and she was grateful for the opportunity it has provided her. Tragically, 18 years ago, Ganeto said she lost a child, and that changed her life and motivated her to help others.

The class has already helped her on her own journey to recovery and healing, and she said she hopes to use her experiences to help others in similar situations.

The graduates heard from Marimir Lora, who works at Providence Community Health Centers, and from State Representative Enrique Sánchez.

Lora shared her personal story and journey.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she came to the United States eight years ago.

“I always knew that I wanted to do something to help my family and to bring back to the community,” she said.

Marimir, who recently became a U.S. citizen, said she began working as a housekeeper at a hotel and lived there for a year and a half, unable to speak English fluently. She said she wanted to do something else with her life and eventually became a certified nursing assistant for homebound individuals. She also started working with the Latino communities, where she learned that identifying someone’s needs was important to be able to provide support.

She said realized that she wanted to do more to help her community and teach others. She applied for and was accepted into ONE|NB’s Community Health Worker Registered Apprenticeship Program, through which she eventually rose to her current position as a community health supervisor at Providence Community Health Centers.

“It changed me change my vision of life, it changed my vision of the workforce. And it’s just it changed my entire self, what I wanted to do in life,” she said.

She told the graduates, when someone works as a CHW, it’s important to know that it’s not just about the individual, but helping others, as well. It involves teaching others so they can advocate for themselves.

Representative Sánchez spoke about his mission to help transform low-income working class communities in Rhode Island.

Sánchez, who’s also a Spanish Teacher at Central High School in Providence, spoke about the importance of partnering with non-profits like ONE|NB and working closely with the community to bring about positive change.