Q&A with Sherrell Thompson, CCHW

Sherrell Thompson is a Certified Community Health Worker who works through the Gilpin Court Resource Center. We sat down with Sherrell to learn more about what her position entails and how she got involved in this work.

What does a Community Health Worker do?

Our primary role is to help residents in low-income neighborhoods overcome the social determinants of health. Basically, I just try to help everybody in the community, whatever it is they need – like filling out job applications, applying for social service benefits like TANF and Medicaid, and signing up for job training through the Office of Community Wealth Building. We also help people find primary care physicians, get prescriptions filled, and find transportation to their doctor’s office, and then we follow up to make sure they got what they needed.

When you’re worrying about shelter, food and clothes for yourself, and the same things for your children, your blood pressure medication or your heart doctor appointment is not the first thing on your mind – even though they might help you live longer. Our work is building relationships. We’re not doing a check-up that’s focused on your weight or your height—it’s more of a check-up on your whole life. I do try to bring up health as much as possible with my clients though, because many times, people need so much help with other things that we rarely get a chance to talk about their health.


What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen in the community during your time as a Community Health Worker?

People are visiting the emergency department less, they now have Primary Care Physicians, and they are taking their medicine on a regular basis and keeping appointments. Our clients are coming in to seek help now and they are comfortable with our nurses in clinic.

I have seen some people go from not having a job to having a job and moving out of public housing, and they are still sustaining themselves. I know a resident who used to cry about not having her rent money and how things were not working out, and now she is working at Amazon and VCU. She’s been able to maintain those two jobs for over a year now, and she has her own car and she’s looking to move out of Gilpin. Everybody has downfalls, but we keep seeing them persevere and not give up.


What major issues do people come to you with, and are there enough resources out there for you to direct them?

The two major issues would be employment and mental illness, along with substance abuse — those work hand in hand. There is definitely not enough resources for mental health and substance abuse. For employment, there’s a lot of people out here hiring — the issue is, the wages are not enough for them to be able to maintain a household. We could always get people jobs at fast food places like McDonald’s, but can you survive off of McDonald’s income and really prosper?


What have you experienced as a Community Health Worker that you think people would be surprised to know?

I was surprised to find out that there are a lot of adults who cannot read and write. That’s my main worry for the redevelopment [of Gilpin Court]. I think the redevelopment is an excellent thing and Richmond needs it, but when you talk about having to uproot 783 units of families in Gilpin … How are we going to make sure everybody has the education to maintain their new home and maintain self-sufficiency to make sure that they’re not evicted in the next year, and that their utilities aren’t being cut off?


What got you interested in this line of work?

I worked in management in Gilpin, and a friend of mine worked there as a resident services coordinator, and she used to watch me whispering to residents, trying to help them. In the rental office, they’re more concerned about collecting rent, resigning the lease, and lease violations, and so when somebody comes to you crying about not having their rent money, instead of just saying, “Well you know, you’ve got to do something, and you’ve got 20 more days before court,” I’m thinking, what am I doing to help this person? I used to tell her, “I’m getting so sick of whispering to people or having people call me after hours,” and she saw this position and said, “This is perfect for you.”

When I speak to people, I speak from experience – I wasn’t raised in public housing, but I did have to move there as soon as I turned 18 because our house caught fire, and they gave us emergency housing in Gilpin. I stayed there for about 4 years, and later I ended up having to move back when I lost a job. I already had 10 years of customer service experience, but I just took advantage of whatever programs Gilpin had to offer because I didn’t want to sit at home. I did all the trainings possible, did the family self-sufficiency program. That’s not to say that somebody who hasn’t been in those situations can’t do the job, because they probably could, but I think when people see somebody who they can understand and who can literally say, “Look, I did that, I’ve been through that, and I can tell you how to get out of it,” it makes it more believable.


What do you like to do outside of work?

I really like to travel. I just started traveling about two and a half years ago, now that my kids are finally semi-grown. My older two boys are 20 and 25, and my daughter is 15. I’ve already planned my trip for Aruba in June, and then we’re taking a cruise with my mom to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving, and hopefully I’ll be going to Arizona in April … that’s for a training, but hey! I’ve tried to keep a minimum of at least three trips per year with no kids.

Self-care is very hard to do. I give people my personal cell number, because you never know when somebody’s going through an emergency, and I want my community to know that I’m there 24/7. Yes, it stresses me out — I mean, people call me at 7:00 on a Saturday night just to chat about what they want to do–but sometimes all people need is a shoulder to lean on. Travel is the one space where I let go, and I try not to answer my phone on vacation.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think the Community Health Worker should be a vital part of any type of health system, whether it’s hospitals, primary care physicians, or even clinics. Right before checkout, they could have patients fill out a checklist about whether they have any of these other issues, and then they can let patients know that they have a person they can contact to help follow up with their care plan and help with any personal, individual issues going on in their household. If we don’t help people address these other issues, there’s no way that they’re to be healthy or keeping up with any chronic diseases.