Community Advocate Helps Rural Poor Age in Their Own Homes

2011 Community Health Leader creates a program that educates residents of Arkansas' poorest region about health and health care services.

    • November 8, 2011

As a resident of a small, economically depressed town in the South, Naomi Cottoms is surrounded by people in poor health. "Whatever the health indicator is—chronic disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure—our community is at the bottom," said Cottoms, who grew up in and lives in Helena, Ark. "Yet, getting the predominantly low-income and African American residents of Helena to visit the doctor can be a challenge, due to their lack of resources and trust in providers."

For low-income people, health care tends to come after a long list of other needs, including food, clothing and shelter, said Cottoms, a former college administrator. As a result, low-income people will often ignore pain and rely on home remedies before seeing a doctor.

To better serve this population, Cottoms started a program called Community Connectors, which sends volunteers door-to-door to educate local residents about available health programs while building their trust. As executive director of Tri-County Rural Health Network, Cottoms' focus is to help seniors and people with disabilities stay in their homes rather than go to a nursing home or other institution.

Participants in the program are more likely to use home- and community-based long-term care services instead of institutional care, according to a multi-year evaluation of the program by the College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas. The program's success in diverting prospective patients from nursing homes has generated significant savings for the state, while providing life-changing benefits to seniors and people with disabilities in the Arkansas Delta. Community Connectors has expanded to 15 counties throughout the Delta region.

For developing a unique approach to ensuring that the poorest residents of a rural community can get access to health care, Cottoms was named one of 10 recipients in 2011 of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities.

Gloria Gordon, a community volunteer, said, "Naomi inspires me to believe that isolated, underserved populations in rural areas can be reached with information about accessing benefits and services when you partner with a local community-based organization."

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