April 5, 2023

Neighborhood House staff, Wa Yang, API Community Health Worker, and his supervisor, Cindi Yang, Director of Programs. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)

AAP staff writer

ST. PAUL (November 3, 2010) – Wa Yang is not your average community health worker. He has a unique but vital role as an outreach educator for at-risk health issues affecting the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Wa is the new American Pacific-Islander Community Health Worker for the Health Education Risk Reduction program at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. His role is to seek out APIA adults ages 25 and older for a class on how to avoid sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs and STDs) and unwanted pregnancies.

“As far as barriers it’s a still a social taboo that no one wants to talk about especially in the Asian community,” Wa said. “Especially, when it comes to asking for help and seeking advice and guidance.”

The program was created from Department of Health research that showed a higher risk for different diseases exists with APIA families that tend to avoid the topic of sexual behavior with regard to risk factors and prevention.

Wa is a certified HIV instructor and said this is a big part of the presentation. However, he notes that other STDs present are also discussed along with another APIA community risk – Hepatitis B.

The class takes into account the social cultural norms and language barriers along with gender imbalance around health education that can lead to ignoring risks until it is too late.

Wa said the challenges are with breaking barriers and making people pay attention to not only the general information but also about the one-time and reoccurring viruses and parasites, curable and incurable.

“I am still breaking down barriers,” said Yang. “Its never easy.”

Programs such as these are commonly focused on youth and gay, lesbian, bisexual individuals and Cindi Yang, Director of Programs at Neighborhood House and Wa Yang’s supervisor, notes that state and federal grants have this program focusing on heterosexual couples – including those already married – that have become at-risk as being out of the focus of outreach and education efforts.

She said that the most effective outreach method seems to be with small groups of both genders. This tends to create a willingness to ask questions or at least makes individuals feel comfortable and will attend with the purpose of learning.

“Having both males and females participating can also be a challenge because one may need to feel a sense of comfort especially with such personal topics,” said Cindi Yang. “We want the participants to have a high level of comfort and understanding.”

She said it took three postings to find the right person for this job. Since communication is the key factor in this type of programming, she said Wa is the right person to do group presentations using his theater background and health knowledge. She said he also has business and marketing skills that help him to effectively get the information out there in the media.

“Its really about marketing the information and the program and about being able to provide the basic health education that comes along with the services that we are doing here,” she added. “We couldn’t just find an individual who does great public speaking. We really needed to have that balance – to be able to find that person who understands what HIV STD is and especially how that affects the APIA community.”

Wa said he expects to become known as “the STD guy.” He doesn’t mind, however, because that would be an indication that his outreach is working and the message is getting out there to the community.

“Trust is the biggest thing and when I am getting enough visibility out there, then at that some point in their life they will need to know something and then they will know where to go,” he added.

It is important that people understand the purpose of the class is to give out information and that it is not his role to get couples to question their own relationships. Wa said a couple in a monogamous relationship for 15 years would still want to take the class for themselves and not just as information for their kids as they approach the age when they would be old enough to be sexually active.

“A lot of them are married and don’t see themselves at risk, which is fine,” he said. “I just want to bring up when did they have their last STD checkup? I want to talk about when did they have their last Hepatitis B checkup and if they know if mom or dad had it and that its congenital?

He said STD and Hepatitis symptoms can lay dormant and people can have it for long time without knowing it – leading to other “opportunistic infections.”

“The older crowd tends to want to treat symptoms and with STD they can come and go and so they think they are getting better,” said Yang. “Then later on it appears again.”

Another outreach goal is to create a sense of normalcy so that the idea of testing is okay, and nothing to be ashamed about. It is confidential and others won’t find out. People who are not born or raised in this culture tend to have more fear in this area, she said.

The classes teach about condom use and other birth control methods and safe sex kits are there for the taking. The class also presents resources available to learn more about protection.

Wa expects that newer immigrants might not have much background in sex education. However, American born adults often think they know it all – but find there is much they don’t know.

A presentation begins with exploring common beliefs and misconceptions about STDs and then he can go on from there. With non-English speaking groups it is easier to explain with visual aids than and interpreters – but he avoids using the more graphic depictions but does use some images.

“I think if there are giggles then I know they are responding and I can go with that,” he said. “The topics are taboo but they do talk about it – but just in closed doors.”

More than just a drop-in office, Wa said he seeks out opportunities to meet with groups at nonprofit centers, clubs and even in the homes of people with the interest of creating as comfortable an environment as possible to share information about risk reduction methods and make knows the resources available such as clinics, brochures and free services.

Neighborhood House is located at 179 Robie Street E., St. Paul, MN 55107. Contact Wa Yang at 651-789-2559 or [email protected].

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