Spreading the work
Community health reps working to prevent illness

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Wrigley (Jan 21/00) - Their roles may vary, but community health representatives and lay dispensers are beginning to be recognized for the important roles they play in the community.

In Fort Simpson, Mary Louise Norwegian, who has 10 years experience as a CHR, offers information on topics including pregnancy, nutrition and counselling for drug and alcohol addictions as well as for those with marital difficulties. In addition, she provides foot care, sponge baths and some welcomed company for elders.

As Norwegian saw it 10 years ago, there was clearly a void in health services for Dene elders.

"I felt that there should be someone in the community who speaks the native language to communicate with the elders," she explained of her motivation to get involved. The demand for her services has only grown since then, she noted.

Norwegian and nine other CHRs and lay dispensers from around the Deh Cho and Dogrib regions gathered for a conference in Wrigley last week. There, conference facilitator Jacqueline Demarre, co-ordinator of the CHR program at Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alta., guided the participants through a holistic approach to their jobs, integrating body, mind and spirit. By being centred within themselves, they will be better able to do their jobs and build relationships within their homes and their communities, she said.

If the CHRs or lay dispensers happen to be personally affected by vices such as smoking, that's OK, Demarre suggested. They don't have to be paragons of virtue.

"None of us are perfect. You work, you learn. You become aware of your positives and negatives and your work on your positives," she said.

However, it would be best to allow someone else to make a presentation on the hazards of smoking, so it will come across as being more sincere, according to Demarre.

In Alberta, CHRs became recognized as an organized professional occupation last year, she said.

Berna Matto, a CHR in Fort Providence, like Norwegian was spurred into action 11 years ago because she wanted to help elders. It was particularly her own parents and in-laws who convinced her that they needed someone who understood them to assist them with their health needs, she said.

DeeDee Hardisty, of Fort Liard, said she grew up witnessing alcohol and drug abuse in her community as well as poor nutrition habits and resulting poor dental health. As a CHR for the past seven years, she has been able to suggest healthy alternatives.

"I don't like to tell people 'do this, do that,' but give them choices (instead)," she explained.

They also learned how to present their message more clearly and effectively. One person, discussing proper nutrition, had everyone draw their dinner on a paper plate.

"Everybody can be creative if they want to be," said Matto, who did a presentation on osteoporosis with the aid of eye-catching felt cutouts.

Hardisty, who also used the felt cutout idea for her presentation on dental health, was sold on the idea.

"I haven't done anything like that before," she said of the simple visual aids. "It's light to travel with instead of carrying posters."