‘Keeping our community safe’: Meet NAYA’s Health Equity team

‘Keeping our community safe’: Meet NAYA’s Health Equity team

“Culture is prevention,” says Natalyn Begay, NAYA’s Health Equity program manager, and it is those words that serve as the foundation for the entire program. “Really, what that means is the reclamation of culture to increase the overall health of our community,” Begay says.

First, elders are looked to for traditional wisdom. Second, those teachings are brought to Native youth and their families. The Health Equity team uses this shared knowledge to ensure meaningful information and resources are getting into the right hands and are readily accessible for multi-generational households. Begay says those services are delivered thanks to the hard work of the team’s members: Jennie Brixey, Poli Joshevama, and MoNique Harvey.

The team further carries out the principles of “culture is prevention” by delivering numerous much-needed, health-related services to Portland’s urban Indigenous community: food sovereignty campaigns, including increasing access to healthy foods and spaces, setting up medical appointments, healthcare advocacy, commercial tobacco prevention, COVID-19 support, and much more.

Helping community members navigate complicated health services in an urban setting is a “big one,” Begay says. People who seek out help from the team are guided toward resources such as how to access medical care, behavioral health services, traditional medicines, and other culturally appropriate care. The work often includes collaborating with community partners. After all, it truly takes a village.

Education is key to the program’s success. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team was focused on delivering health education on preventing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as cancer prevention. All communities are healthier when you focus on the overall well-being of a person. “In order to live healthy, you have to  have access to resources  that can help you maintain your health. Think of the wellness wheel—the services in our program and in our organization, speak to the importance of all sides: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual,” she says.

Many of those services have gone entirely virtual due to the prolonged pandemic. The community health workers have built an “arsenal” of resources to help battle cases of COVID-19. Along with helping people navigate health resources such as finding a doctor or getting signed up for health insurance, the community’s needs shifted to assisting families who were exposed or tested positive for COVID-19 with groceries, rental support, and traditional medicines. In addition, the health equity team has partnered with the FGC, NWI, NARA NW, and other native serving organizations to host numerous COVID-19 vaccination and testing events. All of these services are in addition to continued health and wellness services.

Begay described one of NAYA’s first vaccination events as eye-opening. It was the first time many staff visited with community members in more than a year. She and her team knew people were eager to get the shot, but they also needed to see some friendly faces just as much. People were so happy, she says, and there were a lot of tears and unexpected emotions. Their relief was also visible as community health workers helped households quarantine, which involved delivering groceries, hygiene items and sometimes hot meals. “Keeping our community safe and fed, and offering them peace of mind while they heal,” Begay says.

The program isn’t without its challenges. Staff capacity is an ongoing issue, as is currently the case with many organizations. Begay would like to increase the size of the health equity team to expand the services NAYA can offer. There are several open positions listed on NAYA’s website; if you’re interested in being a part of the team’s amazing work, please apply.