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Released October 6, 2003
Editors Note: This story was previously published in The Talon, the Southern Miss alumni magazine.
Nike-Footed Warriors

By Karen B. Gibbs

HATTIESBURG - Picture this: You're standing in line at the grocery store. The woman behind you catches your eye and greets you with a friendly hello. You return the pleasantry and then she says, "We're both women. Have you had your mammogram done? Have you had your pap smear?"

You've just met a member of Community Health Advisers as Research Partners, or CHARP. And you can thank The University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Sustainable Health Outreach for the blessing.

In April 2000, the National Cancer Institute awarded a total of $60 million in grants to study ways to reduce cancer among 18 minority populations. Southern Miss' Center for Sustainable Health Outreach, in partnership with the University of Alabama-Birmingham, was awarded a $4 million grant to combat cancer among minority and medically underserved groups in Mississippi and Alabama. From that, the Deep South Network for Cancer Control was born.

Operating on the premise that cancer awareness and education are the chief weapons needed in combating the disease among these populations, the Deep South Network set in motion its program to do just that. Now three years into the study, the program has already affected a 396 percent increase in the number of African-American and uninsured women receiving mammograms and pap tests in the Delta and Hattiesburg-Laurel areas.

In large measure, CHARPs can take credit for this success. The brainchild of Dr. Agnes Hinton, co-principal investigator for the Deep South program in Mississippi, the CHARP model has proven itself so effective that the 17 other recipients of the National Cancer Institute's grants have also decided to use it.

Nedra Lisovicz, investigator for Deep South, shares the curriculum she helped develop with other participants in the National Cancer Institute study. Her enthusiasm for the volunteers is undeniable. "The CHARPs are Nike-footed warriors in the fight against cancer," she said.

So how does it all work? Essentially, coordinators go into the minority community and recruit people who are naturally caring and are already respected by their peers. These volunteers attend eight weekly sessions to learn about cancer detection and treatment. They are taught what outside assistance is available and are encouraged to forge partnerships with these agencies. They are given tips on communicating their message, and because each CHARP group is an independent entity, they are encouraged to apply for not-for-profit status and informed as to the grants available to them. Then, armed with knowledge, ability and a strong sense of mission, CHARPs are sent into the community to do their work.

Take Debbie Gilbert, for example. Gilbert stumbled upon the Deep South Network two years ago while retrieving her son's impounded car from Southern Miss' campus. Entering the office of the Center for Sustainable Health Outreach - the place Deep South Network calls home - Gilbert was met by Arnecca Carter, CHARPs training coordinator. Impressed with Carter's helpfulness, the inquisitive mother of two asked about the Deep South Network. "She [Arnecca] explained it was a federally funded program, and they were dealing with cancer and trying to get the word out to people," Gilbert said.

Being a giving person herself, Gilbert was interested in the project but wasn't sure she qualified as a CHARPs candidate. Carter told her she only needed to be a willing, good-hearted person who could attend the eight two-hour training meetings. Gilbert attended a meeting that night, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"I think it was a blessing," said Gilbert, who personally has referred more than 50 women to the program for mammograms and pap smears. "I'm a very caring person. I believe in cancer awareness and trying to help educate people. It's opened doors for me in that area, and I believe I have touched people and people have touched me."

This sense of dedication and commitment is the hallmark of every CHARP. They join the fight against cancer because they are nurturers. They care. Living in the community they serve, they are aware of the particular fears that confront their neighbors.

"I'm a single parent raising two children, working two jobs with no other support whatsoever," Gilbert said. "If I do have cancer, how can I afford to take care of it? What am I going to do with my children if something happens to me? You need someone to tell you, 'Let's not worry about all that. The first step is to get yourself checked.' But what if you don't have money to get checked? We've got programs available for you. ...Deep South is always there, holding your hand one step at a time."

The confidence CHARPs exude comes from the excellent training they receive. Training coordinators Arnecca Carter (Hattiesburg-Laurel) and Edna Powell (Delta region) recruit oncologists, nurses, health care professionals and providers to share their expertise and offer support to the volunteers. Jennifer Downey, director of communications at the Center for Sustainable Health Outreach, fields CHARPs' requests for teaching tools and does her best to provide them.

Oftentimes, to meet these needs, the center has to be creative. One of the most innovative of these teaching tools is the Awareness Necklace. Its beads of different shapes and sizes are used in stressing the importance of early detection in breast cancer. From tiny beads that represent lumps found by mammograms to the largest bead representing the average size lump found by one who gets neither mammograms nor practices self-examination, it offers a visual tool for CHARPs to use. "Many of our community volunteers wear their necklace every day so they can use it as a teaching tool when talking to their friends and neighbors about the importance of early detection," Downey explained.

Another aid for CHARPs is a ballpoint pen that displays a different teaching point on breast cancer each time the pen is clicked. A spiral-bound laminated book of CHARPs notes also offers a more detailed visual aid. "It's one way we can help to ensure that the message the community volunteers are sharing is consistent and accurate," Downey said.

It follows that a sense of camaraderie develops between CHARPs and the professionals with whom they interact. That relationship can be especially beneficial when CHARPs finds people who need immediate screening but are told they have to wait months for an appointment. Together with the doctor or nurse they know through Deep South training, CHARPs can cut through the medical red tape and schedule an appointment for a much earlier date.

Such boldness comes from a zealous sense of mission. CHARP Lillie Peterson, a graduate of Southern Miss, gave proof of this commitment in a free exercise program she established in her community. After talking to women about breast and cervical cancer and the importance of keeping fit, Lillie discovered that "we have so many people out there who say 'Oh, if I had a place to go and exercise, I would do it.' So from listening to that, I started this exercise program. I found a place where we could exercise for free. The city [of Hattiesburg] provides the place. We have free mats. We exercise by looking at videos. I get them to come, that way I can give them information and ask questions."

But how does an exercise program translate into breast and cervical cancer awareness? It's all in the sign-in procedure, Peterson explained. As people enter their names on the sheet, Peterson or one of her cohorts tell them that the Deep South Network co-sponsored the program. The next question is a perfectly logical one for a CHARP: "Have you ever had a mammogram or a pap smear?" If the answer is no, Peterson wastes no time encouraging them to get tested. Her presentation is as smooth as Denise Austin's abs and as effective as one of Austin's 60-minute workout sessions.

"I explain to them that so many people, basically my people, are perishing because of the lack of knowledge," Peterson said. To date, she estimates that she has reached more than 50 women with her cancer awareness message. Of these, 25 percent had never had a cancer screening.

Joining Peterson at the evening exercise classes is CHARP Marsha Dixson. Marsha and her husband, Jerry, are pastors with the Love Joy Peace Ministries of Petal. A former special education teacher and now a stylist at J.C. Penney in Hattiesburg, Marsha finds constant outlets for reaching women with the CHARP message. She estimates that in the two years that she has been involved with the Deep South Network, she has reached more than 300 women.

Jerry Dixson is also a volunteer in the program. Soon after signing up, Jerry and Marsha began planning how they could use their ministry to help in the fight against cancer. Since then, the pair has traveled throughout the South, delivering programs of inspiration and education to the neediest among them. From adulterous leanings to prostate screenings, bumps in a marriage to lumps in a breast, this dynamic couple interrelates their life giving messages bringing hope to those once forgotten.

While the above-mentioned volunteers are among the 113 CHARPs from the Hattiesburg-Laurel area, 343 of their fellow warriors live in the Delta. Overseeing the efforts of those volunteers is Program Director Freddie White-Johnson. A human dynamo that moves fast enough to be picked up on Doppler radar, White-Johnson is totally committed to wiping out cancer within the populations of Mississippi's minority poor. In fact, after receiving her master's degree, White-Johnson returned home to the Delta, where she labors tirelessly to bring the message of cancer awareness to the African-American community. Laboring for other people's lives will be the legacy of her future.

And the future is what White-Johnson opens up to her CHARPs. Realizing that most of the 85 CHARPs in a recent Sidon/Greenwood graduation class had never even finished high school, she was determined to give them a chance to have a graduation. Rivaling the finest of high school ceremonies, this CHARP graduation took place at Mississippi Valley State University and featured state Senator Alice Harden (also a Southern Miss graduate) as guest speaker.

The graduates processed in style and sang "We Are the World" and "Lean On Me," prophetic melodies considering their new role in the community.

It is this sense of community involvement that leads White-Johnson to include local schools in the CHARPs' efforts. After educating middle school principals and teachers about breast and cervical cancer, White-Johnson brought her message to 5th and 6th graders. Sitting in the gym or the auditorium, the students are introduced to cancer and asked if they would like to be soldiers in the fight against the disease that claims so many poor women. She challenged the students to go into their neighborhoods and get the names of women who have not gotten breast exams, mammograms or pap smears. In return, students receive incentives such as skating or pizza parties or gift cards to Wal-Mart.

The project has proven to be a success. In Tchula, for example, the 60 students from S.V. Marshall School who participated in the project yielded a combined list of 380 women who needed cancer screenings. Some names were repeats, but ultimately 117 new women were given examinations. A similar program in the local high school brought forth 44 new names.

Community involvement is vital. For instance, radio station WGRM provides free public service announcements about cancer awareness three times a day. The Kappa Alpha Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and the Partnership for a Healthy Leflore County/Greenwood Community and Recreation Center together sponsor a monthly two-hour call-in radio show featuring Dr. Groesbeck Parham, an obstetrician/gynecologist/oncologist from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

"The part I am playing through the radio show is merely a supplement to the great work they [Deep South Network] are doing," Parham said. "I'm just happy to be in a situation to be able to help my sisters. I love them, and I love what they are doing. They are warriors."

Warriors, yes, but with the touch of an angel. That's the message on a sign above the desk of another remarkable CHARP, Evetter Hawkins, who manages the community Cottonwood Glen. Hawkins' office is filled with commendations and love tokens from residents and friends, which make it obvious that the senior citizens in this small community think of her more like a daughter than a manager.

The gospel tunes flowing from the radio in her office sing of Hawkins' spiritual side. Like the Dixsons, Hawkins and her husband, Frank, are evangelists who spread the message of cancer awareness as they minister to their congregation. Through talks, newsletters and radio broadcasts, they reach all ages with their words of education. In the two years she has been a CHARP, Hawkins estimates that she has reached hundreds with her message. Since introducing the CHARP program to the Cottonwood Glen community, 18 residents have signed up as volunteers.

One of the most endearing recruits is Levonzel Peeples, 65, who was recently crowned Ms. Health Awareness in her community. "Because of the CHARP program, she [Peeples] was able to detect her own cancer. She overcame it and she's in remission right now," Hawkins said proudly.

Parliamentarian for her CHARP group, Peeples said she believes what she learned as a volunteer saved her life. "One night I was laying in bed and my arm fell down on my breast, and it kind of stung a little. I ran in the bathroom to the mirror and I kept rubbing and I felt a small lump. I called the doctor, and he saw me the next day. He thought it was cancer, so he sent me to a [cancer] doctor. He saw me the same day. Two days later he did the surgery."

"One reason things moved so fast is because Evetter played a major role being able to speak and articulate what had taken place. She goes on the phone and explains that this woman is 65 years old, and we need to try to get her in. If you put her on the backburner she could die," White-Johnson.

Giving testimony to the bond that develops among the CHARPs, Peeples looks over to her friend kneeling at her side. "Evetter is my right hand," she said. "You can tell her anything, and she'll try her best to do it. When I was so weak, she came and cleaned, mopped and everything. I thank God for her."

The love in the room is almost palpable as all eyes watch Peeples get up from her chair and walk to the door. With the Ms. Health Awareness tiara atop her pretty newly grown hair, she turned and smiled. Levonzel Peeples is ready to face the world - another Nike-footed warrior.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM