Julio and Walter at COVID test site
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Learning the language of trust

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Julio Barrenzuela is adept at overcoming cultural barriers. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, he holds hope that an SIU outreach program can improve the health of Springfield’s Latino and undocumented populations.

In spring 2020, Barrenzuela joined SIU’s newly formed Illinois Virtual Care Program as a pandemic health worker (PHW), hired to build bridges between Springfield’s Spanish-speaking communities and its medical community. Since 2015, SIU Medicine has been making progress in neglected neighborhoods of Springfield, using community health workers to connect residents with social services and family health care providers through the federal Affordable Care Act.

A serious need also existed within the city’s Hispanic and undocumented populations, but had proven more complicated to tackle.

Barrenzuela possesses an ideal skillset. Born in Lima, Peru, he immigrated to Springfield with his family as a child. He served in the United States Navy, where Chaplain Corps duties and tours to numerous ports encouraged an acceptance of others regardless of religious or cultural beliefs. Following military service, he earned a bachelor’s degree at SIU-Carbondale and a master’s degree at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. LA had been his home for the past decade before returning to Springfield.

His people skills were further honed at dance clubs during military shore leaves and on the West Coast, growing into a decade-long side-hustle as the “ambassador of salsa.” The salsa classes energized a broad range of audiences, from students to retirement home residents, and frequently brought him back to Illinois to lead groups.

At one such presentation at SIU School of Medicine, Wendi El-Amin, MD, associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion, mentioned that 80 percent of a person’s health is their quality of life. The remark struck a chord with Barrenzuela.

Health disparities became more apparent when he began looking at the opportunities available to segments of the population. “Something like access to health care can have an impact on your mental health and lead to anxiety and depression,” he says.

At SIU, Barrenzuela found people who were invested in helping change the status quo.

“It’s bigger than being bilingual, It’s a sense of being multicultural."

I’ve come to appreciate the difference. Knowing the cultural norms and social structures is equally important for navigation.”

Barrenzuela views his PHW role as another way to bring people together for a common good. He credits collaborations with a trio of local Latino organizations — the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network, Culturally Integrated Education for Latinos Organization and the Hispanic Women of Springfield — who have built up trust over the years, making it easier for him to leverage pandemic resources for those who need it most.

However, members of the undocumented community have a higher level of suspicion toward accepting public benefits, as it typically involves being added to a government database, he says.

“There’s a very real fear of deportation, so it takes a degree of trust and honest communication to make them comfortable enough to take advantage of the services we offer.”

“We’re trying to provide resources and open them up to a paradigm shift toward preventive care that will improve their lives,” Barrenzuela says. “So it’s important to meet them where they are, where they work, or at home, and break bread with them. They must trust us.”

Like a dance lesson, he expects numerous attempts will be necessary to get the right steps in place.

“It will take some creativity to strengthen these social bonds, but the results will ultimately be worth it.”

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