Navigating the Path: Meet Our Community Health Navigators
As part of our Navigating the Path storytelling series, we introduce the people who make up our incredible community of employees, leaders, partners, and patients. We kick off the series with Rachel Brennan from our Omaha, Nebraska, navigator team. Rachel works directly with clients to help connect them with the resources and services they need. She is a “fierce advocate” in helping clients overcome barriers to help drive health equity in her local community.
Hi Rachel, can you tell me about your background?
I have worked in the human services field for 17 years. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Science and a Master’s Degree in Crime Management and Justice Administration. In Omaha, I have worked at several non-profit agencies and the State of Nebraska. I have worked in several community areas, including homelessness, child welfare, developmental disabilities, mental health/ substance abuse, and the criminal justice system. I was appointed the Sarpy County Drug Court Representative by both Juvenile Judges in 2011 and have worked extensively in the Nebraska court system. My experience working with the Medicaid and Social Security systems helps me navigate the difficult barriers of receiving assistance.
What made you decide to pursue this career?
Working with people, in general, is one of my biggest passions. I like to get to know people and their stories - everyone is unique, and everyone experiences hardships throughout their lives. I have been called a “fierce advocate” by my peers when it comes to helping my clients overcome obstacles, unexpected life changes, financial losses, difficult diagnoses, and other major life changes that can affect one’s daily living. The Path Assist Program is a wonderful opportunity for me to use my past experiences and help accelerate local change to drive toward better and more equitable community health.
What are the most common challenges people face?
The biggest challenges that I have seen people face are: navigating the system by themselves, building and maintaining trust with those they are working with due to the high turnover rate for social service workers, getting mixed messages and not receiving consistent answers from resources, and having to experience hardships while in a very vulnerable state. Living right above the poverty line disqualifies people from receiving government assistance. Often these folks are working 2-3 jobs just to make ends meet. And because they don’t qualify for food stamps, they go to the food pantries weekly. Many people have health insurance through their employers but can’t afford the co-pays to see a doctor, so they remain unseen and ultimately have a higher rate of getting sick. If you are sick and can’t work, you lose pay. It’s a vicious cycle.
What do people distrust, and how do you combat those fears?
Clients have told me very similar things throughout the years regarding trust. It all comes down to fear that something will be taken away from them, whether that be their home (because it needs major repairs), their independence (due to a disability), their children (because they are sleeping on a couch or blow up mattress and not a bed), their relationships, or their sense of security and community. It’s important to build rapport and trust immediately and let people know that we are here to help them, not harm them.
I have heard hundreds of people say throughout the years that they had been shamed for asking for help in the past, and they are hesitant to ask for it now. The shame lies deep within. I have also heard many people say they have felt like opening up to a health worker paints them into a corner, and they feel trapped. Sometimes they feel like they have shared too much of their situation or traumas and immediately run away, expecting negative repercussions. As a community health navigator, it’s my job to let people open up to me when they feel ready and to approach their situation gently with compassion. Being consistent with those that I work with shows that I will not give up on them, and I am determined to help their quality of life improve.
There has been a lot of discussion around health equity and disparities. Why is social care critical to achieving health equity? What changes do you see needing to happen to move forward?
People would benefit from more education and coaching, exploring and identifying what led them to be in the hardships and changing the path to have a healthier and happier future. Many past clients I have worked with are only able to put a bandaid on their problems, going from one social service agency to another. For example, if someone needs rent assistance, they can get it from one agency, but when the funds are up, a plan needs to be put in place so the person can pay the rent themselves, which will increase self-esteem. Often, plans aren’t put in place, and when the funds run out, they are referred to another agency that can cover their rent for the next three months. Prevention education and making transition plans are so important yet rarely set up.
What event made the biggest impact on your life?
When I was appointed Sarpy County Family Drug Court representative by both juvenile judges, it was a pilot program. I showed strength in the courtroom, and my advocacy for families in the system was noticed. It was an honor to serve in this role because I was able to use problem-solving skills with creativity at the same time. I was able to show the court system the real barriers that people face daily and verbally paint a picture of what their life is like and what they feel they need to be successful. The most important thing to me in that role was that everyone had a voice.
What is the most valuable life lesson you’ve learned, career or otherwise?
The most valuable life lesson I’ve learned in my career is something very simple: everyone asks for help on their own time and heals on their own time. No one has the same pace, and that’s ok. Sometimes we have to make the same mistake over and over in order to learn. Patience is key, and letting someone open up about their life organically will always win over being forced to do so.
If you could tell your 18-year-old self anything, what would it be and why?
It’s important to take care of yourself, mind, body, and spirit. Having a passion and being open about it does not make you too passionate - there’s no such thing!
Fill in the blank:
When I’m not working I enjoy finding hidden gems around Omaha- I love finding little coffee shops and art galleries.
A secret talent I have is my intuition.
One thing people don’t know about me is that I was adopted.