$5 Million in New Grants, Partnerships Promote Community Health
Last Updated on October 15, 2018 at 12:00 AM
Originally published October 15, 2018
By Laura L. Acosta
Talking publicly about reproductive health, HIV and substance abuse can intimidate most people, but not Victor Cornejo, especially if what he has to say can save a life.
Cornejo, a junior computer science major at The University of Texas at El Paso, is a peer educator with UTEP’s Hasta La Vista, a community-based intervention program with Aliviane, Inc.
Started in 2014 with a nearly $900,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the program has employed 90 UTEP students as peer educators and public opinion leaders (POLs). Their job is to discuss the risks of substance abuse and HIV and hepatitis C with young minority adults who may be struggling with those issues.
POLs share information through social media, while peer educators such as Cornejo lead in-person workshops on safer sex practices, HIV and hepatitis C prevention and treatment, and the consequences of engaging in risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse.
“Sex can transmit HIV, Hep C and such,” said Cornejo, who joined Hasta La Vista after taking an HIV test offered by the program. To date, the program has provided 3,000 HIV and hepatitis C tests on campus.
“Substance abuse also comes hand in hand. They can happen to anyone. We are preventing it. Explaining that was sometimes the most difficult part,” he said.
Hasta La Vista is one of a handful of public health initiatives developed by Thenral Mangadu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences at UTEP. Since 2014, Mangadu has received $7.8 million in federal grants to collaborate with community partners on programs that improve and promote the health of thousands of the region’s residents.
Most recently, Mangadu secured three competitive grants from SAMHSA and one from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women totaling $5.1 million.
“The funding we have received allows UTEP and our community partners to address the collective health needs of individuals in our community,” Mangadu said. “Along with providing much-needed health services, we are also focusing on the foundational risk factors that contribute to substance abuse, mental health and violence-related health disparities while negatively impacting the health span of our priority populations.”
Partnerships Make a Difference
Finding practical solutions to some of the region’s most pressing health challenges requires a community effort.
Mangadu has leveraged the support from federal grantees such as SAMHSA to bolster partnerships between UTEP and different community organizations, including Aliviane, Inc., the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence (CASFV), the El Paso Department of Public Health and many others. UTEP students also benefit from the opportunities these partnerships provide to make a difference in the community’s health.
Funds support prevention initiatives for mental health, HIV, hepatitis C and substance use disorders for disadvantaged young minority adults and women.
The program, “Mujer Saludable, Familia Feliz,” targets women ages 18 to 24 in underserved communities who are at risk for or living with HIV, hepatitis C, substance abuse and sexual assault. It was created with a nearly $1.5 million SAMHSA grant Mangadu received in 2016.
UTEP, CASFV, Aliviane and the public health department offer prevention, treatment and support services, such as "Salsa de la Vida," a free nutrition workshop that teaches participants how to prepare healthy meals.
Over the past two years, Mujer Saludable has administered 1,187 comprehensive screenings, 1,133 HIV tests, 925 hepatitis C tests and 1,269 interventions for nutrition counseling, safer sex practices, violence prevention and sexual assault support groups to women in the rural West Texas communities of Clint, Fabens, Socorro and San Elizario.
Joy D. Leos, health training and promotions manager with the El Paso Department of Public Health, said these types of cross-sector collaborations are important because they harness expertise from academia, the community and the public health sector to create meaningful, impactful and long-lasting work in the community.
“Projects like Mujer Saludable bring together the best in holistic care for our community, going beyond the basics and ensuring our participants are equipped with skills, self-esteem and a strong belief in themselves that they can be healthier, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well,” Leos said.
The CASFV also collaborated with UTEP to implement a coordinated community response for sexual assault and violence prevention on campus. Other partners include the El Paso District Attorney’s office; University Police; UTEP CARE: Center for Advocacy, Resources and Education; and the UTEP Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSCCR).
The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) awarded $599,994 in grants in 2015 and 2018 that pay for the CASFV initiative, which is led by Mangadu
As part of the project, the CASFV provides bystander training on campus. UTEP students, staff and faculty learn strategies and skills for bystanders to intervene to prevent possible sexual violence. The training is also an opportunity for them to learn about the CASFV’s services.
“Social service agencies very often don’t have the luxury of research,” said CASFV Executive Director Stephanie Karr. “We don’t have the bandwidth to do it, and we really like to involve community partners. We’re really excited about getting to continue the work that we started on campus around bystander intervention and stalking and sexual assault.”
Building a Healthy Community
Mangadu planned to launch during the fall 2018 semester new programs and services to provide HIV, mental health services and primary care services to susceptible individuals. These programs are based on outcomes from Mangadu’s previous initiatives.
“What is rewarding for me as a researcher is the connection between these projects,” Mangadu explained. “Each of them is built upon the needs we were documenting.”
With $1.9 million from SAMHSA, UTEP will collaborate with El Paso’s Department of Public Health, Project Vida Health Center, Aliviane, Southwest Viral Med and Sunset ID Care to reduce HIV infections among Hispanics with serious mental illnesses or co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.
Over the next four years, 2,500 individuals will benefit from culturally competent substance use disorder, mental health, and HIV and hepatitis C primary care and prevention services.
“Dr. Mangadu’s research, as well as the type of research our faculty undertake within the College of Health Sciences more generally, is focused on our commitment to improving quality of life in our communities, particularly our most vulnerable populations who suffer a disproportionately higher risk of health challenges," said Shafik Dharamsi, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Sciences. "This type of research is focused on social impact and specifically designed to address health disparties. Dr. Mangadu works tirelessly to improve health and reduce inequities in this region, and the funding she is receiving is a strong testament to that! ”
Mangadu also received $375,000 from SAMHSA to train UTEP first responders, including law enforcement, police dispatchers and University personnel, to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use. Aliviane will collaborate in training implementation.
Ivonne Tapia, Aliviane’s chief executive officer, said the partnership between UTEP and her agency is a testament to how community organizations and institutions of higher education can work well together to ease our region’s real life struggles.
UTEP and Aliviane will collaborate on a new program to increase access to substance abuse support services for pregnant and postpartum minority women and their families. A $2.5 million SAMSHA grant will fund the program that will be administered at Aliviane’s Women and Children’s Residential Center.
“It has been a great pleasure for us to collaborate with Dr. Mangadu and her team, and we hope that we can continue to have a positive impact in the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community,” Tapia said. “I look forward to advancing the educational experience of UTEP students who will participate in these grants as well as the life-changing experiences of our clients who will experience these quality services.”