This piece is the first in a series about United Way and its partners’ efforts to build a stronger, healthier, more just Anchorage. The stories speak to an old Alaska truth: We can accomplish much more together than alone, and when we help each other, neighbor to neighbor, our communities thrive. May these stories inspire you to join United Way in creating change to better people’s lives .
Presented by United Way of Anchorage
Job applications. Medicaid forms. GED test prep. All these tasks can fill even lifelong English speakers with dread.
For non-native English speakers, those forms and files are more than a nuisance — they can be serious roadblocks to a better life.
That’s something Lori Pickett and her team at the Alaska Literacy Program noticed as they watched people move to Anchorage from overseas in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“One of the things that became apparent was a recognition that when people arrived in the U.S. from other countries, their health deteriorated very quickly,” Pickett said.
Within five to eight years, immigrants were having “full-blown health issues,” she said.
At that time, volunteers with the new Alaska Literacy Program were mainly working to help bring native English speakers’ reading and writing skills up to speed.
But as Anchorage changed, the program adapted, too.
“We transitioned more from helping people for whom English was their primary language and started working with people who were learning English as an additional language,” Pickett said.
The Alaska Literacy Program, United Way of Anchorage, Providence Hospital, and others came together and, in 2013, created the Peer Leader Navigator program; trained Peer Leader Navigators partner with Alaskans learning English as a second language, helping them overcome hurdles and adapt to a new life.
Today, over 100 languages are spoken in the Anchorage School District alone, according to data from the district. Meanwhile, a historic number of refugees are coming to Alaska to escape conflict in their home countries.
Most of the navigators and the program’s clients are immigrants or refugees, a group of Alaskans who are highly susceptible to health disparities. More than 60 Peer Leader Navigators have been trained in the history of the program, representing 18 languages and even more countries.
“The health system in the U.S. is incredibly culturally specific, here,” Pickett said. “And it’s also very complicated to navigate.”
Language and cultural barriers to health care, as well as the relentless stress of adapting to a new nation, can take a toll.
Navigators work out of Alaska Literacy Program classrooms in the heart of Anchorage’s diverse Mountain View neighborhood. Erin LoPorto, who directs the Peer Leader Navigator program, said trust is an important bedrock of the program. Navigators often already have deep roots in the communities they serve.
“We recruit people who are connected to their communities, who are connected to churches or programs or groups,” she said. “For the most part, our clients are people who are just a part of the communities our Peer Leader Navigators are plugged into, so they’re naturally connecting with people.”
‘When I came to Alaska, I was by myself’
Peer Leader Navigators also help with other needs, too, like preparing for natural disasters such as earthquakes, and applying for food security programs.
Rosario Grande is one of 20 active Peer Leader Navigators in Anchorage today. She helps clients enroll their kids in school, apply for jobs, and fill out paperwork for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
That help is something she didn’t have when she moved to Anchorage by way of Mexico in 2004.
“When I came to Alaska, I was by myself, and I was trying to figure out how to fill out an application, or how to approach an office. And it was difficult for me,” she said.
Grande came to the Alaska Literacy Program as a family literacy coordinator and preschool teacher four years ago. In 2020, she trained to be a navigator.
She saw the experience as a way to give back.
“When I became a peer navigator, I said, OK, this is my opportunity to help people that are in the same place I was before,” she said.
Grande became a navigator during the pandemic, a time when the program’s ties to local communities was crucial. As both employment and education went online, digital literacy became more critical than ever. Health guidance and statistics from federal and state governments were getting updated, daily.
“Everything in the pandemic moved online,” Pickett said. “It moved online — in English.”
As Alaska rolled out its COVID shots, navigators connected Alaskans with information about the vaccine. The Alaska Literacy Program hosted pop-up vaccine clinics geared specifically toward immigrants in the same classrooms where they take ESL classes.
“It was a lot. We did a lot of work,” Pickett said. “We were one of the few places open.”
Pickett and her team increased their workload this year as they partnered with United Way to implement a collaborative project to increase food assistance in the Peer Leader Navigator network.
The project, funded by a Nourishing Neighbors grant from the Albertson’s Foundation, was a collaboration among the Food Bank of Alaska, Anchorage Health Department’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, Municipality of Anchorage’s Innovation Team, and Alaska 2-1-1.
The project team worked together to train navigators about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the WIC application process, and how to refer families to these programs. Thanks to their training, peer leaders were able to offer multilingual support to help their networks sign up for and better utilize food benefits.
“The peer leader navigators have built an incredibly strong network in Anchorage,” said Cecelia DeKorne, a director at United Way who worked with the team of navigators. “And the fact that their communities have better access to food during a time of rising food insecurity is a win for everyone.”
That network has a long reach for immigrants — while navigators like Grande usually work with clients who speak the same languages they do, connections can be made across cultures and language barriers, too.
“That similar experience of being an immigrant and coming to a place is really meaningful,” Pickett said.
And each year, the community of navigators is growing.
Eight new Peer Leader Navigators are undergoing training, which takes roughly one year.
“People have said they’re trying to be the person they wish they had when they first came here,” LoPorto said.
That’s true for Grande. She taught a health literacy course this past summer and is now helping a woman fill out job applications.
She may have come to Alaska alone in 2004. But today, Grande is surrounded by support as she makes sure new immigrants are not alone.
“Working as a Peer Leader Navigator is just —” She takes a moment to search for the words.
“Wow,” she said. “It’s the best thing I can do.”
This story was sponsored by United Way of Anchorage thanks to a grant from ConocoPhillips Alaska. United Way of Anchorage serves the community as a convener, funder, sustainable changemaker, and as a service provider. The Peer Leader Navigator program is one of the many powerful community partnerships that allows United Way to do far more good for Anchorage than an individual agency or person could do alone. If you’d like to join hands with United Way in this work, learn how you can contribute or visit LiveUnitedAnc.Org.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with United Way of Anchorage. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.