“So Many Quiet Heroes”: Efforts to Reach Underserved Communities During Pandemic Garner Praise and Awards

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February 18, 2022
AMEN Team Members (left to right): Jacki Hecht, Dr. Ana Todd, Angela Robertson-Bigham, Hannah Tindall, and Isha Patel.

When The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing partnered with the Division of Campus and Community Engagement (DCCE), the City of Austin, and Mt. Zion and Rehoboth Baptist Churches to launch the African American Mental Health and Wellness (AMEN) program in 2019, they never envisioned how vital the program would become, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Designed to support the mental and physical health of African American residents in the Austin area, the program has become a lifeline to many in the largely east Austin community.

“In the early days of the pandemic, members of the AMEN team worked with pastors and lay health workers within churches to conduct a community assessment to determine the needs of congregants,” said Jacki Hecht, managing director of the AMEN Program. “We assessed their need for more information about COVID, access to medical care and supplies, and feelings of loneliness. We also asked about what they were doing to cope with the uncertainty and hardships caused by the pandemic.”

The team offered a six-week faith-based, holistic mental health and wellness program using Zoom to encourage participants to engage in the five behaviors known to improve mental wellness: mindfulness, healthy eating, physical activity, sleep, and social connectedness. A monthly mental health dialogue focused on topics such as grief, loss, and loneliness; self-care; the impact of racism on health; COVID vaccine safety; heart disease prevention; advanced care planning; and mindfulness.

Team advisor Shannon Jones and Hecht also host a radio show twice a month during which they welcome community organization leaders and people with lived experience to talk about mental health and wellness.

In addition to providing on-site clinical services, mental health education programs and mental health training for pastors, the AMEN team joined forces with the UT Austin School of Nursing to assist with the School’s Vaccination Administration Mobile Operations (VAMOS), the drive-through COVID vaccination clinics set up at area churches and other local community sites. The mobile clinics were launched to ensure that Austin-area residents who have limited access to requesting online appointments or are unable to travel to large vaccination sites can receive vaccinations.

Volunteers at drive-through COVID vaccination clinics

One such site is Mt. Zion Baptist Church where Angela Robertson-Bigham, a certified community health worker and wellness coordinator for church community outreach efforts, serves as the VAMOS communications coordinator. Robertson-Bigham oversaw one of the first church-based mobile vaccine clinics at her church, Rehoboth Baptist Church, and continues to assist with other mobile vaccine clinics and homebound visits.

Before the VAMOS clinics were established, she explained, members of her church were hesitant to take the vaccine due to misinformation.

“Many people who come to be vaccinated are anxious and worried,” Robertson-Bigham said. “I try to put them at ease, answer their questions and let them know we will provide really good care to keep them safe. I share my own experience of being anxious about needles and assure them the needles are small, the shot will go superfast, and they can take some pain relief medicine afterwards, if they need it.”

For these efforts, the AMEN program has received a “Together We Will Heal” Hero Award, a new award created in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the African American community, particularly on people living with mental health challenges, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. The group recognizes the untold hardships that frontline workers are experiencing during this challenging time. The presentation was made at the annual Central Texas African American Family Support Conference on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.

In addition to the team award, Robertson-Bigham also received a Hero Award for her work coordinating the mobile vaccination clinics and managing a community garden where the community can learn about the important intersection of mind-body-spirit in overall well-being.

“There are so many quiet heroes working in the community, sharing important health care information and helping people address the chronic conditions they deal with every day,” Hecht said. “We’re grateful to all these helpers, including School of Nursing students and faculty, and AMEN health workers like Angela, who volunteer at these public events, providing health-related resources and helping people learn how to strengthen their immune systems. Our community is safer and stronger as a result of this collaboration.”