Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Community health reps help citizens stay well

Cheryl Willis has no trouble recalling the most unusual event she has ever experienced during her 10 years as a community health representative.

“My absolutely favorite story … I received a call from a gentleman and he said, ‘Cheryl, my eye fell out. Can you come put it back in?’ ”

Mrs. Willis explained her client had a prosthetic eye and she had been taking him to the eye doctor for years. She watched how the prosthetic was cleaned and fitted during his examinations. The prosthetic had become loose during an eye exam and dislodged completely after the client returned home.

Even though it was late in the evening, Mrs. Willis made the trip to her client’s home.

“It’s like a contact lens. If you want me to put it back in, I’ll be happy to do it. If I start to hurt you, let me know.” Mrs. Willis thoroughly cleaned and reinserted the prosthetic. “I just popped it back in. No problem,” she said.

Mrs. Willis’s story illustrates the tribe’s community health representatives (CHRs) are often the first-responders for many of its citizens. A CHR will often take on many roles during the course of their job. They are health providers, counselors, social workers, mentors and tribal ambassadors. Many also become close friends to the clients they serve.


The Chickasaw Nation was one of the first tribes to employ community health representatives. The tribe hired its first CHR in 1969.

Today, there are 23 CHRs working from eight tribal area offices. They serve Native American clients in all 13 counties of the Chickasaw Nation. Chickasaw community health representatives offer a wide range of services to clients from taking blood pressure and blood sugar readings, to performing basic health checks and providing information about various tribal programs. The program also administers free rabies clinics and conducts elder home health visits.

Pat Woods has been employed with the tribe more than 36 years. She was one of the first tribal employees and began her career as a CHR. Mrs. Woods agreed the community health representative program has been a vital program for many years in the Chickasaw Nation.

“Being a CHR was so rewarding. In those early years, it gave you the opportunity -- if you had the initiative -- to do whatever it took to help. I think the CHR program gave the tribe the foundation to build programs and services to make life better for Indian people,” Mrs. Woods said.

“We documented the need for better health care, housing, employment and services for youth and our elders. As the Chickasaw Nation has progressed, we have seen many of our dreams come true. Our visionary leaders, Gov. Overton James and Gov. Bill Anoatubby, had the commitment and persistence to help bring about all our positive accomplishments. I am thankful and proud to have been a part of it, she added.”


The Community Health Representative program began in 1968 as a federal program. According to the Indian Health Service (IHS) website, the CHR initiative was the first tribally-contracted program. Services are administered by the tribes and are available to Native Americans living within tribal boundaries. CHRs are charged with delivering health education and practices set by the IHS and American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

Since its inception, the CHR program evolved to become the largest program contracted to the tribes, not only in dollars and number of people served but also in the number of tribes holding contracts with the government. The program has grown nationally to include more than 1,400 CHRs representing more than 250 tribes. Services offered by the CHR program can include patient advocacy, liaison between clients and tribal and community resources, patient education and health promotion/disease prevention.


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