When Donna Waller knocks on the door of her neighbors house she hears something along the lines of, “what you want now Miss Donna,” she says.
And her response is always, “Look, I just want to check on you and make sure you are taking your medicine. Did you eat yet? How about I sit here with you while you eat.”
Waller is the lead Welcomer at the Allied Wellness Center. She is one of 10 volunteers who go to neighbor’s homes and offer support in whatever way they can, whether it’s a ride somewhere, help reading blood pressure and just companionship.
“They couldn’t believe that nobody was really that concerned,” Waller said.
The Allied Wellness Center celebrates 15 years of community service this July. Since its inception, the center has been a staple for the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood on Madison’s near west side. The center provides bus passes, counseling support, spiritual guidance and health services for one of Madison’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
The Allied Welcomers program has matured and evolved. Today, the ten volunteers are Community Health Workers in training, hoping to take a state test to get certified. Lack of funding, however, has prevented the volunteers from taking the last step. But the team continues to do the work for their community, regardless of pay.
Growth of the Allied Welcomers
The Allied Welcomers program started in 2007 under the auspices of the Allied Wellness Center. The Welcomers greet any person moving into the neighborhood. They introduce themselves and offered a welcome basket full of household items like dish soap, a mop and a broom.
Waller started as a Welcomer ten years ago. Sina Davis, another Certified Health Worker (CHW) in training, started as a Welcomer when she transitioned from Chicago to Madison and rented her first place in the Allied Neighborhood.
“We are doing a little extra over here because we have a great need,” Davis said. “We have a lot of babies. We have a lot of teens. We have a lot of families that can use the support and we are here to do it.”
Over the years the Welcomers developed trust in the community. They not only welcome new people but are the point of contact when you need a ride to a doctors appointment, if a storm caused a power outage or if you simply need someone to talk to. They disseminate health information to residents and are what Waller calls “the first responders.”
“People in the community appreciate it,” Waller said. “For the simple fact that they know that there’s someone in the community that they can come to with whatever problem it is that they might have.”
Today, the Welcomers seek a higher level of certification in order to serve their community in a deeper way. They give blood pressure readings, help residents with diabetes check their sugar levels and request home visits with a nurse or doctor.
Although the role of an Allied Welcomer and a CHW look very similar, getting the official certification recognizes the work and opens the doors for more funding.
Today, the welcomers complete workshops and trainings in Milwaukee and Madison. They work on an individual level with Dr. Jonas Lee, a physician in the program, and meet once a month with nursing students who provide new research on topics like cancer, diabetes or mental health.
The CHW in training then relay the information they’ve learned to community members. But the Welcomers also bring something valuable to the table, Davis said — They teach people in the medical profession how to build trust in a community.
“We educated them to let them know, as future doctors and nurses, [the] person that you are talking to it is not (just) a patient,” Davis said. “This is just not a job. They are human beings.”
The Welcomers are currently getting in-home hours with community members who agreed to have regular visits. The volunteers need to complete one more segment of the professional training, a state certification test. At $2,000 per test, however, the cost has prevented them from taking the last steps.
The CHW in training continue to help families, teens and individuals even without certification, because that is what they’ve been doing since the beginning, Davis said. Being able to help her community members also makes her feel good.
“That is [our] strength,” Davis said. “We are educating ourselves, bettering ourselves and strengthening our community.”
When the Allied Wellness Center has extra funds, the volunteers get a stipend, around $15 an hour according to Gloria Manadier-Farr, the community health liason for the Allied Wellness Center. That money is unreliable, however, and sometimes the center barely has enough money for other needs such as bus passes and copays, she said.
“We wanted them to know we appreciated them because they are working hard,” Manadier-Farr said. “When we go home they are still in the community. When they go home, people in the community go to them.”
The organization was able to celebrate in February when Forward Community Investments, an investment group that targets organizations that reduce social, economic and racial disparities in Wisconsin, gave the center a $3,000 Game Changer Grant.
Tom Behnke from Forward Community Investments said the Wellness Center stood out to him because the emphasis on the health equity gap in Madison.
“The more and more I learn about it, the more and more it makes me sick to my stomach and any organizations bringing awareness to that is great,” said Behnke.
Behnke said the organization also stood out to him as deserving of the money because it is run by volunteers. Manadier-Farr is the one paid staff member and she is part time. Organizations like this, he said, are not easy to sustain and the people who are a part of them work really hard to keep them alive.
If neighboring churches and organizations like Forward Community Investments, UnityPoint Health Meriter and SSM Health did not give grants and donations, the center would not stand, said Manadier-Farr.
The future goals are to get CHW certifications; purchase enough medical equipment, like blood pressure cuffs for each volunteer, and attend other conferences and trainings like an upcoming CHW Conference in Michigan.
Manadier-Farr said if the CHW in training were not around some needs of community members would never get met. However she knows that if the Allied Wellness Center closed tomorrow the CHW in training could still continue because they have the training and the trust.
“That is my biggest heart felt because they could be on their own,” Manadier-Farr said. “The wellness center belongs to the community.”
The number for the Allied Wellness Center is 608-274-7006.