PASOs community health worker Norma Garcia once wrote a poem about walking in the shoes of the immigrant.
“When you walk in their shoes, you understand their problems,” she said.
PASOs is an acronym for Perinatal Awareness for Successful Outcomes, a statewide community-based organization with a chapter in Beaufort County. It is no coincidence that the Spanish word “pasos” means “steps.”
Since 2000, one in six new South Carolina residents is Latino. PASOs was created 10 years ago with the vision of developing a healthy Latino community.
The organization is partnered with many agencies, including the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, the Beaufort Jasper Hampton Comprehensive Health Services Inc., and Hilton Head Hospital.
Throughout the state, teams of PASOs community health workers called “promotores” are trained to assist in navigating the health system.
An immigrant herself, Garcia moved to South Carolina eight years ago. Pregnant with her first child, she discovered resources to keep herself and her baby healthy.
“I learned how to navigate the health system by being part of it,” said Garcia. “Now people learn from me, and then through me, they learn to make the changes in their lives.”
The process of learning has a domino effect. “I changed my life, I help change other people, then those people change other lives,” Garcia said.
For Yajaira Benet Uzcatequi, travel was nothing new to her, but moving to South Carolina was a different experience. Uzcatequi, the PASOs Lowcountry program coordinator, was born in Venezuela and moved with her family to Spain as a child.
“You feel disoriented,” she said. “In Spain, I was able to go everywhere. I could travel through Europe if I wanted to, but when I came here to live,” said Uzcatequi, “it’s a new country, things are done differently. The language is a barrier. And the distances are very big.”
In the Southwest, agencies are familiar with a long-established Latino population, Uzcatequi noted. South Carolina agencies and organizations wanted to help but weren’t prepared with bilingual employees who understood the culture.
“The Latino women that were arriving at the hospitals to give birth had not received prenatal care, but the outcomes were good,” she said. “The fear was the longer you were in the country and unable to access the medical services, the outcomes might be less positive.”
Maria Martin, Early Childhood Initiative coordinator, said the concern was not because the mothers were not permitted access to care, but because they did not know how to find it.
“Now we’re looking at education and connecting with resources. The education is more of awareness and empowerment of how to help themselves,” Martin said, “because Latinos want to do for themselves. We all do things differently, but it is guiding them through so they become integrated and functional in the community to which they now belong.”
Martin added that the Early Childhood Initiative has evolved to support healthy families, not just mother and child.
The Lowcountry promotores meet with Uzcatequi and Martin to coordinate their efforts.
Eneyda Diaz, who moved from Mexico with her family, is a promotore on Hilton Head Island.
“I see somebody that looks Latino, like a mother who is with her kids, I tell them what I do, that we help the Latino community, and ask if they know about the different resources,” said Diaz. “Then I talk to them about what is available.”
Veronica Torres is not only a promotore but also president of the PTO at her child’s elementary school in Hardeeville.
“Yajaira invited me to the workshops, and that’s how I got involved in PASOs. I love what we do,” Torres said. “Today I was talking to a lady. She was depressed because her son’s teachers told her he was having problems learning. When I told her about what we do and how to get help, she felt better.”
The website at www.scpasos.org lists numerous resources and community initiatives coordinated by PASOs, as well as bilingual information.
“That was a resource in my community that I did not know was there and now I do, and it is there for everyone,” said Torres. “The community learns about preventive medicine, and if they start doing that then they will have a better life.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.