Chris Norwood – USA

Linked with Soka Gakkai International – SGI-USA, and with Health People NY/USA.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Chris Norwood (born 1946) founded Health People, which is located in the South Bronx, New York, and is the largest peer health education and disease prevention organization in the USA. Starting in 1990 as a women’s AIDS prevention program, the organization now provides 3000 people a year in the sickest, poorest area of New York, with men’s, family, and teen HIV programs. It also provides successful asthma, diabetes, and smoking prevention programs, all built by training low-income people affected by chronic disease to become educators and leaders … (1000peacewomen 1/2).

She says: “Dig where you stand, and surely you shall find a well”.

… Founder chris Norwood was positively trilled at the response from her friends in the East End Art Community who generously donated art works of which 100% of the sale price was going to her teen-to-teen mentoring program … (full text).

The book: Advice for Life, by Christopher Norwood, Chris Norwood, National Women’s Health Network (U.S.), 178 pages, Published by Pantheon Books, 1987: Explains who the carriers are, what the medical tests show, what realistic precautions can be taken, and what symptoms to watch out for. ISBN 039475428X, 9780394754284

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Chris Norwood – USA

She works for Health People.

In 1985, Chris Norwood was asked by a women’s magazine to write what turned out to be the first American article on women and AIDS. She became haunted by how misunderstood the AIDS epidemic was, “Waking and sleeping, I saw before me an endless picture of the shadows of hundreds of ghostly women which I knew to represent the mammoth future death already inevitable from HIV infections taking place right then.” Chris wrote a book, Advice for Life: A Woman’s Guide to AIDS, and began trying to do her own studies to underscore the seriousness of the women’s epidemic: these included the first study projecting AIDS orphans in New York and a groundbreaking study of the undercounting of women’s AIDS deaths.

When it became obvious that little practical progress or recognition of women’s needs was occurring, Chris decided to start a women’s peer education program and train the women most affected by HIV– the poorest women in the city – to become educators. “Fortunately, I wasn’t daunted because I didn’t know at all how daunting this project was; fortunately, I obtained some small donations to start and focused on the South Bronx. At the time, in 1990, the South Bronx was not only the poorest and sickest area of New York, but shattered by drugs, abandonment and such widespread arson (with owners torching their buildings for the insurance money) that it looked like a bombed area. When New York’s longest and most deadly drug war erupted on the block of our office, we had to literally walk through almost daily gunfire for months.”

Chris describes how she persevered through these early years: “Part of the reason I wasn’t reasonably worried or afraid was that some of my friends in AIDS, seeking the spiritual support we all needed so badly, had become Buddhists and introduced me to the Soka Gakkai,  a vibrant international Buddhism. The other part was this: although I had grown up in financial comfort, I’d been through multiple discomforting experiences, essentially ending up homeless as a teenager. Then, in treatment for a severe spine curvature, I couldn’t walk for almost a year.

After that, I had the luck to go to a terrific New England girls’ school, Dana Hall, for two years. In the New England spirit, the school was determined to truly educate all students, smart or not, and certainly this ineluctable and unexpected attention to my mind and development was very reviving at the time.

In sum, I knew both the shattering impact of real illness and the power of real education. I now came to the idea that my past, especially its difficulties, had had an actual purpose: preparing me to know that real education was vital fighting an epidemic mainly striking women who had been harshly left out of society and trying to get that education to them. As we all know, being seized by ideas like this can lead either to missions – or madness – but, in either case, give one much determination.”

In 1990, most women with HIV were in hiding, and Chris was told that poor women wouldn’t bother with the long (three months) peer educator training. Yet the Health People program graduated a first class of 12 women and those women became a phenomenon, speaking to hundreds of groups and constantly reassuring women – and men – that it was time to stand up to the epidemic. Within a few years, men asked to join Health People and soon the organization started the Jr. Peer mentoring program. In the junior program, older kids from HIV-affected families became mentors and big “siblings” for younger kids from these families.

In 1997, Health People started training both adult and teenage asthma peer educators, because the Bronx had the city’s highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate. A few years later the organization added both a diabetes peer educator program and a smoking cessation program. Currently, Health People has some 45 staff (most program staff started as peer educators), and 50 active adult and junior peer educator volunteers, all serving some 3,000 people a year. All these programs are built on education and intensive human support. For example, they have a six-session AIDS Self-Care Course for people with AIDS (PWAs) and a six-session Diabetes Family Group for diabetics and their families.

The majority of peer educators have been so affected by the levels of chronic disease around them that this at once dominates and scars their lives; when they start at Health People, most are also on welfare and/or parole or in drug recovery. Yet, the expectation that people affected by illness and other serious problems will themselves become real educators and effective leaders has been fulfilled over and over, as the results show. For example, children in Health People’s asthma community case management, who received home visits from asthma peers who had become staff educators, reduced their emergency room visits by 60% and lost school days by 50%; diabetics in a recent diabetes peer training had an average 30% decrease in blood sugar. Many of the AIDS clients live in horrible welfare hotels where the city houses up to 400 PWAs in one building; Health People routinely get these clients into the medical care they need because the peer educators and staff go to these places – where regular social workers are rarely seen – and take the PWAs to the doctor.

Chris finds working with children especially satisfying. “We wanted, most of all, to show kids that they are important to society and other people; so we gave them the real responsibility of being youth mentors. Even though they are growing up in very difficult circumstances, often worried about the illness of a parent, these teens completely extend themselves to help other kids. Despite the high HIV risk around us, in ten years, no youth in our program has contracted HIV; they mainly stay in school and evaluation shows they are not attracted to drugs like many of their peers. Unfortunately, even though half of new HIV infections in New York now occur in youth and young adults, this mentoring program – which clearly acts as the most powerful and sustaining AIDS prevention – can barely get funded.

Chris notes that the rampant, chronic disease in poor communities is largely avoidable and unnecessary. “How is it even possible, for example, that 40% of people in the South Bronx already have diabetes or dangerously high blood sugar? The toll, which leaves communities helpless and angry as well as ill, has substantially to do with the working or (nonworking) of society. In showing that people can develop the skills, knowledge and spiritual confidence to take control of their own health, we see ‘health’ as a transforming issue, a means to help communities move from hopelessness to a focus on building.”

Health People, under the leadership of Chris Norwood, is determined to join with others to make intensive education, combined with human support, not only part of the medical system, but recognized as a primary strategy for chronic disease prevention and care. (1000peacewomen 2/2).

Mandaled life versus mandatory death: New York’s disgraceful partner notification record, in Revue Journal of Community Health, Numéro Volume 20, Number 2 / avril 1995, Pages 161-170, ISSN 0094-5145 (Print) 1573-3610 (Online).

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