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America Bracho

America Bracho

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America Bracho, comes to Orange County recognized for her efficient system of healing urgent health condition that afflicted Michigan. She brought with her a vast amount of knowledge regarding her experience as a rural doctor in her town in Venezuela, lessons she treasured and put in practice, with an unquestionable determination to support human dignity, offering the right to health and well-being. In 1993 America Bracho founded the organization Latino Health Access (LHA), to assist in the multiple health needs of the Latino community of Orange County, a community without health insurance; she, hoping to improve the health and quality of life through quality, educational preventive services, emphasizing total personal participation regarding personal health decisions. Fighting against AIDS, diabetes, domestic violence and others, America Bracho today conquered a seven-year battle: Inaugurate a place in Santa Ana to build a park where families and their children can run, play and stay healthy in a safe place. But as in life?s great undertakings, America now more than ever needs your help and that of other agencies, to continue to build a healthier and more prosperous county.

Recently a PBS news reporter asked her if she was a community organizer. America answered, ?I am only a person who believes, who militates in the hope of creating healthy communities through education, through radio, television, organizing the community, voting, teaching, creating a park, making tamales.??

Seven years ago, Irma, a mother who was already working with LHA, watched in horror as a boy was hit by a car, one of many children playing in a parking lot in Santa Ana, he was in search of a ball that had rolled into the street. After many meetings, Irma, LHA, and the then Mexican Consul, Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro, addressed city officials asking for one of many vacant lots, in order to build a park where children can meet and play safely. They said no, those lots were designated to develop an empowerment zone. The consul then replied, ?but the money can?t be for leaving lots empty for ten years. It seems to me it would be as illegal to use it for another purpose as to not use it at all.?

The mothers and LHA wouldn?t quit ringing doorbells to make the park succeed. Then the city told them there was another lot located in front of Northgate Market, on 4th?Street. After a few years they decided to sign the contract, Wells Fargo donated some money; Saint Joseph offered attorneys, architects and engineers to draw plans, permits and other documents, and another woman from Corona del Mar donated $100,000 dollars! ?She became the park?s angel,? says America joyfully. ?The community continues to sell tamales, carne asada, corn on the cob, to have garage sales, a group of counselors continues to raise funds, but they will need a lot more to complete the dream of the Community Park,? says America.

America Bracho continues seeding, raising leadership, and that leader who didn?t know she was a leader (because she is the mother who sells tamales, who cleans houses and who is paying for her children?s education,) but took courses at LHA and ended up getting involved, getting interested and obtaining a mechanism to participate and transform her community. These are the leaders LHA recruits.

America Bracho was born in Cumana, Venezuela, a city located on the east, her parents were docents and she has a sister two years older. They were raised in Caracas and her parents were very active in the community, professors of the old guard, who knew you can?t be an educator of a student and not care about them. Her father said he couldn?t teach biology and talk about sea creatures to students who had never been to the sea. So he would take the children to the sea to teach about it, several times a year. ?From the time I was born, my home always breathed community and community service,? says America. America is crazy about her parents, she realizes their influence on her is huge, and she plans to spend Christmas with them and her sister on Margarita Island where they live.

Tell us about your childhood memories.

When I was in first grade, someone came to our school and spoke about polio and children who are paralyzed. She told us that the fight against polio, the immunization and the educational campaigns of the organization, Faith and Joy- an organization that still exists, were very costly. She gave us raffle tickets to sell, that story moved me so much that I sold raffle tickets every year. I remember telling people with sincere emotion, ?Madam these children are becoming paralyzed and you aren?t buying a raffle ticket while they don?t have the resources to get help.?

America was 11 years old when she saw a child tied to a tree, he had Down?s syndrome and his mother said if her were not tied he would escape. Horrified she ran home to ask her mother how she could free him. America could not accept that reality. “Now we have created in LHA a program with children promoters, I have a great deal of faith in children and their ability to change their communities,? she says moved.

Tell us about your high school memories.

I loved it. At the end I became an activist, a community worker and a part of the student movement in Venezuela. But at 14 my parents decided to get a masters at Florida Atlantic University and I attended the 10th?grade in Boca Raton. These were the years of racial integration; they would transport black children to white towns and visa versa, in order to force racial integration. Many Afro-Americans came to Boca Raton from other towns and fights happened, even with knives; I was scared. I couldn?t understand this racism. I knew about it in Venezuela, racist words and attitudes, but nothing this brutal, it was exasperating. My paternal grandparents were black, my father is more black than white, my maternal grandfather is blond and blue eyed and my maternal grandmother is indigenous, a good mixture as the Venezuelan song says, ? we all came out with peacock feathers.? That?s why I can?t conceive of criticism, condemnation or limiting the participation of someone for something out of his or her control. These are the things you can?t change nor should change because diversity enriches. It was a traumatic lesson for me. At the time the only thing I wanted was to return to Venezuela.

How long were you in Florida?

Only a year, I became 15 there. When my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday, I answered, ?I want you to make me?hallacas? these are Venezuelan tamales and they are also called banana leave tamale.? My mother laughed because this meant she had to find banana leaves and in those days there were no Latino markets, but when I got home from school I ate?hallacas.? Her mother had searched at all the Florida haciendas asking for banana leaves.

Bracho finished high school and went on to medical school.

Why medicine?

I saw in medicine an opportunity to help people and saw suffering as related to human dignity; the right to health. The suffering caused by disease robs people of their dignity. And the protection of that dignity is the obligation of the heath worker. Sickness is so intrinsic to human dignity that health has to be a human right. I militate in the idea that health is a human right. I graduated form med school in Caracas and went on to work in my town. Besides, my mother always said her dream was to return home as a doctor, but the University of Venezuela was closed at the time, so she was forced to study something else.

?Studying medicine in Venezuela was marvelous because from the first year I saw patients in the hospitals; there they allow you to assist, and you don?t get a diploma until you perform community service after graduation. I made my mother?s dream a reality by working in our town. I stayed because I fell in love with the rural life and that?s where my two children were born. I had met my husband when I was in med school, we graduated together and he worked in the next-door town. My town is on the coast; in front of my home there is a gulf and you can see the mountains with tiny houses on the other side. Behind are more mountains covered by farms. I took care of fishers, the farmers on the other side; I would take off in a boat full of vaccines or in a jeep, or on a donkey wherever I had to go. That?s where I met the promoters of heath,? says America proudly.

Bracho started to practice in her town with the valuable help of Carmen, her nurse assistant, the equivalency of a health promoter. Carmen was from that town, everyone knew her, they respected her and the work she did. There was a nurse assistant in every town. Carmen received her with everything organized and telling her what she had to do. All the town?s children were vaccinated and it was the result of the close interaction between her assistant nurse and her community, where human relations have no substitute, that relationship is full of love and obligation.

Bracho admired the capacity of her nurse assistant to resolve medical problems without being a doctor. ?That showed me that medicine is not a mystery, that people can be trained regarding fundamental principles as to how sickness occurs, is healed and how to prevent it, it?s a formula for success,? assures Bracho.

I also admire how the town responds and resolves problems presented with minimum resources. I don?t believe you need billions to do things right, but then I don?t know how to work without promoters,? says Bracho.

“Some high school students took a survey to determine the health of the entire district; we founded an examination lab because poor people had to go to the city, spend on transportation and food only to take a ten-minute test. That lab is still operating, a lab abiding by all regulations, started very rustic and nobody thought it would succeed but I went to Caracas, to my university and asked the professors to help us and the dean said: ‘America, in the basement we store all the old equipment from hospitals, get what you can use.’ A man with a truck transferred that treasure and with that the lab was founded. Very early in life I realized that the solutions are not in the hands of any one political party, but rather in building a conscience and compassion and that is the same with the fisherman, with the politician, with the teacher, with the priest, with those who conceive solutions, when we forget what makes us different we remember what makes us the same.

I saw a lot of people with tropical illnesses, but they were illnesses of poverty, parasites, diarrhea, TB, malaria. That?s where another level of conscience took over, when I asked myself if I wanted to keep seeing patients every day or learn to transform those systems, which must be done if one wants potable water, trash collection, etc. I was very young, I graduated at 25, but I was determined to someday learn how to change all of that,? she says convinced.

She knew that in Caracas they offered a course on Public Health that included Health Education and that professors who were teaching that went on to graduate school in the United States. So in spite of her bad experience in Florida, her husband and she asked for a scholarship, and departed for Michigan where they were accepted. They finished their masters but disillusioned they discover Venezuela had no work at the time. Michigan was already in the forefront of an AIDS program for Latinos, the epidemic had just begun and Bracho started to work there waiting for an opportunity in Caracas. She worked in the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit, with infected people, ex-addicts, ex-prostitutes, and she recruits them as her health promoters and creates a great team. An excellent program was created that became Midwest Hispanic Aid Coalition that included the entire country. This was a rough time, with attacks on homosexuals. She created a national net with Latinos so that the message would become more relevant, and that?s how she met people from California. One day they offered her the leadership of a health program for the first Spanish radio station operating 24 hours a day in Orange County. She comes and finds an enormous Latino community with no help, as if it didn?t exist. She met Alberto Gedissman and Ana Nogales, who already had a program, ?Here, between us (Aqu?, entre nos)? A first study was done which demonstrated that there were no services or a health agency in the county, but a year later the radio station was sold and the group that realized that study founded LHA.

In 1993 LHA was born to help the multiple health needs of the Latino community, and to improve their quality of life through preventive, educational and quality programs.

What programs does LHA offer?

Our first program in Santa Ana was regarding diabetes because it was urgent, but we knew there were also a lot of other problems, and that we should pursue them and transform our community. But this would not be resolved with a traditional program. If Bracho would attend one patient a day, she could never get far enough considering the infinite number of problems the community faced. Only by training promoters could she multitask. So she started recruiting health promoters.

A very dramatic experience marked the organization soon when one of the diabetes students became blind. When she asked her students if they would undergo surgery to prevent blindness, someone answered, ?I would have the operation even if I had to sell tamales,? an answer that led them to their slogan: ?A healthier community even though we may have to sell tamales.? Since then LHA sells tamales and the money is used to pay for diabetes operations.

Where are the programs held?

In the neighborhoods where they are most needed; where promoters are also recruited. Programs are held in homes, in patios, in garages, people bring their chairs; the classes are organized by the person who is truly interested in transforming the community by making it healthier and more prosperous. LHA is an institute for community participation, we believe that without participation change is impossible. And we know the communities can?t do it alone, that everyone needs to participate, doctors, teachers, and business owners, to realize a benefit for all. LHA creates mechanisms of participation for everyone. LHA has children promoters, six-years-old who are already transforming their communities and people 75 who are doing likewise.

Then we added a program dealing with violence, with children between 12 and 13, and we created a group of 12 juvenile leaders who have all graduated today and five of them are working with LHA as adults, they are our evaluation assistants. Then we created an obesity group, to build a park, to organize the Latino vote as part of our health strategy. LHA works throughout the county, from Buena Park to San Clemente.

How does LHA contact the community?

We reach about 40,000 persons a year. We knock on doors, talk to them at stores, fairs, schools, and churches and the streets, etc. The first year we knocked on 11,000 doors to get 1500 adults, the following year 6000 more and then 7000, then 8000 and on and on.

How many people work for LHA?

Presently we have 57, 32 of whom are community promoters with salaries and benefits, they are the eyes and ears of this community. We have 180 youths and children promoters and the youngest is six. The children come daily after school to train as promoters. The oldest is 75, and has been working for us for ten years, the program is called Latino Seniors (Personas Mayores,) he goes out to his community, as the rest of them do, to find more people; he also teaches. Thanks to this program we found out that Latino seniors didn?t get the services richer people got. These are assistance programs that exist for all and that they deserve.

We have women leading the program on domestic violence who entered as victims and now teach; people with diabetes, who teach about diabetes, besides we offer programs for prevention of accidents, poisons and healthy weight, for mental health, depression, programs to strengthen the family where we go to the homes and work with the mother in childhood development.

How would you describe LHA?

A program that responds with relevance, in a timely fashion, to actual situations. For example in the diabetes program, a woman as well as her daughter, were suffering from domestic violence. Her daughter wanted us to help her, but we had no domestic violence program, although several of our promoters were victims. When we tried to do so, she had already been killed, that created a crisis at LHA because besides the pain of her death, many saw themselves in the same situation as that young girl. That very day we decided to implement a domestic violence program that would include men and we started with the project: ?Project Honor.? Each time we are presented with an emergency situation, we create a program and we begin to raise federal funds to pay our promoters.

LHA is an institute of participation, you tell us what you need and if it makes sense and agrees with our philosophy, we ask for the funds and start the program. Dr. Federico Vaca, a Panamanian from UCI came to us one day saying, ?America I get so many dead kids from this area, caused by accidents like not using a car seat for different reasons. I?m very depressed because these kids get to us dead or paralyzed for life. I went to the hospital to find out what could be done and I was sent to you. I told him that if this program passes it is because you helped us, because LHA doesn?t do anything for anyone that shouldn?t be involved.? So we started to raise funds. This happened about eight years ago and we created the first program for car seats in Spanish in the county called ?Buckle Me Up.? We started educating the community and replaced broken car seats with working car seats for free; we?ve given away thousands.

Besides, LHA has achieved valuable associations with different groups such as Kaiser of Santa Ana. Today LHA has a space in a community clinic where Kaiser operates and this is a mandatory program for family practice at Kaiser. LHA gives its members classes and receives remuneration. Our diabetes program has been replicated in San Diego and Los Angeles. Promoters have been trained in Rochester, Australia, South Africa and Oaxaca because people finally see the value in having promoters and community leadership as LHA has been demonstrating for 16 years. In actuality LHA is writing a book about the organization.

Bracho has received an infinite number of recognitions, she participates in numerous boards of directors and she continues to perfect herself professionally. She believes each of us is a valuable piece in the jigsaw puzzle that makes our community healthy, prosperous and secure, a community for all of us. ?If you understand that there must be actions, that?s when you change from inaction to action, then you tell yourself you have to do something, be it to give ideas, time to teach children how to read, to help with something, your time or your money even though it may be those $10 you were going to spend on something not so healthy to eat. Donate it! Urges Bracho.

America Bracho founded Latino Health Access to assist in the multiple health needs of the Latino community of Orange County, to improve the health and quality of life through quality, educational preventive services. Today her work, through her health promoters and other valuable collaborators, has crossed borders but to continue to build well-being and socio-emotional security, she needs your participation.

For more information call Gabriela Gonzalez: (714) 542-7792

Filed Under: Outstanding Person

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