During my early professional career, I have worked in opposing yet complementary environments. My interests lie in challenging societal differences and identifying how successful community involvement can improve population health. Transitioning between working in Cameroon, West Africa and now Telluride, Colorado; it is hard for me to accept the fact that each society values community engagement differently, altering the health outcomes in their respective countries.
As you can probably imagine, the healthcare systems between the two countries are seemingly polar opposites, but there is one perplexing difference that I believe will play an instrumental role in the future healthcare development within each country. Health disparities are blatantly obvious throughout Cameroon. Without looking too far, it is easy to identify that certain health statistics are shockingly different between Cameroon and industrialized nations. For instance, I commonly found myself teaching about germ prevention, HIV/AIDS education, healthy eating and exercise and other community health education campaigns. While most of these lessons are ingrained into American youth at young ages by their parents, teachers and social media campaigns, it is far less common for Cameroonian youth to receive these important lessons at home. In Cameroon I found myself filling the void for what American youth fortunately learn throughout their childhood. I began teaching to various audiences; school-age boys and girls, parents, and young-adults. Each campaign had an overwhelmingly positive participation rate, not only would the affected populations attend the discussions but the general community showed their support by being in attendance. Most of the time, lectures would go far beyond the allotted timeslot because almost every member of the audience wished to participate whenever I called upon volunteers. For most it was an opportunity to practice what was discussed and change the public perception surrounding the disparities that hindered the progress within their community. Discussing my surprise with my fellow organizers they explained why the community was so supportive and came out in droves to show their support for community education campaigns. The explanation was simple: ‘as everyone learns together and supports the same cause, then we all improve our health together.’ The social stigma associated with specific health concerns decrease with each passing campaign. Unified citizens can support community progress as a whole rather than only those directly affected by the disparity. Using this approach, everyone learned the same lessons and resolutions for the most critical health needs in the community.
These differences have resonated with me since I began working with Tri-County Health Network over a year ago. Although I no longer find myself riding motorcycles into remote villages to educate and promote healthy behaviors, I still coordinate programs and events throughout our tri-county region that promote improving community health. A few weeks ago I was attending a Health Job Fair in one of our more rural communities when a passionate community member mentioned to me, “There is an undoubted need for community health services here, however there never seems to be a want. Without a want there will never be any services.” Almost instantly, his frustration took me back to my time in Cameroon where my efforts to engage the community were laughably non-existent compared to my effort to rally Coloradans behind a similar goal.
Comparing Cameroon and American societies can arguably be chalked up to comparing apples and oranges; I understand. Regardless of these complex differences, I have been continually perplexed by the challenge of rallying rural Colorado communities around community health campaigns. Comparatively, our rural corner of Colorado has everything one would need to host successful community health campaigns- functioning internet, operational community centers, up to date computers, printers, and organizations capable of donating food and/or materials etc. Everything an organization would need to host a community event except for the full participation from members of the community.
Noticing an unequal distribution of resources and an inverse relationship in community participation, I cannot help but wonder why? Why was it that Cameroonian’s are far more excited to support community health campaigns? Why is it such a challenge for TCHNetwork to rally our communities around health? What long term outcomes will this community support (or lack thereof) have for the health of each community?
I recognize that there are numerous variables that effect the health of the community. Too many to dive into in this article and probably countless that do not have an answer. Perhaps, there are too many community events that attract participants away from those that promote community health. The ability to access websites and smartphone apps can quickly provide health education, replacing the need for educational events in the community? Regardless of the underlying cause, strong communities depend on public health campaigns; large or small; urban or rural; industrialized or developing. Successful health campaigns depend on community support and participation. Without the voice of the community, health outcomes will never be able to reach their potential and become a determinate of social progress, unless everyone is able and willing to participate.
Erich Lange– Community Engagement Specialist