Lillie Towns’ life and health took a nose dive well before she met Spectrum Health community health worker Carmen Roman.

She didn’t have a home of her own. Her sugar and A1C levels routinely rose above the safe zone. She weighed more than she should. She felt depressed.

But as they sat across from each other in Towns’ apartment recently, they checked off successes since the two teamed up about a year ago.

Towns, 49, found an apartment. She has her diabetes under control. She lowered her A1C. She’s losing weight. Eating healthier. Getting daily exercise. Becoming active in the community.

And she’s getting counseling to help her deal with past trauma.

“She’s come a long way,” Roman said. “I’m proud of her.”

Finding hope

Towns’ many successes are the result of her hard work in the Core Health program through Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.

The program is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary helping people like Towns, who face some type of barrier to accessing health care, program supervisor Leyla Flores Morales said.

Core Health is open to adults with diabetes, heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The program is offered completely free—not even the participant’s insurance company pays.

A community health worker visits them in their home once or twice a month and a registered nurse visits every three months.

Flores Morales, a social worker, said the program typically lasts about 12 months for each person, but that can run shorter or longer depending on circumstances.

Core Health clients learn how to create goals and improve their health and quality of life. They get established with a primary care doctor if they don’t have one and learn about community resources that can help them with services such as housing, transportation, mental health and low-cost food.

“We try to really connect with our clients,” Flores Morales said. “We try to figure out: ‘What do you need and how can we support you?’”

They ensure clients make it to important appointments, have access to the right medications, and that they’re taking them properly.

The community health workers offer guidance, but they leave action to the clients. This way, individuals are positioned to thrive long after their time in the program ends.

“This is my passion,” Roman said. “Being able to see the change with people going from here to there … It’s like, ‘Wow. We did this together.’ There’s hope.”

Back to life

When Towns joined Core Health, stable housing quickly emerged as her first priority.

With help from Roman and Community Rebuilders, she secured an apartment in Kentwood.

Towns has battled diabetes since her first pregnancy 22 years ago. She knew she needed to get her sugar and A1C under control.

She attended nutrition classes offered by Access of West Michigan’s Nutritional Options for Wellness Program.

She started meal planning and using portion control. She started walking her therapy dog, Buddy, every day.

Soon, she had lost 60 pounds.

She also started therapy through Network 180 to treat her depression and work through past trauma.

When her sleep specialist doctor recommended she try light therapy, she got on Amazon and ordered a light she now sits in front of for a spell each day.

She signed up to volunteer, too—at Spectrum Health, at Streams of Hope Food Center and at her church, Faith Church of Grand Rapids.

“I like the different avenues of outreach,” Towns said.

Soon, she noticed something different. Her outlook on life brightened.

“Overall, I feel pretty good,” she said. “It’s been very helpful having Carmen come.”

She still struggles, especially with checking her blood sugar three times a day—mostly because she’s afraid of what the numbers are going to show, fueling her depression.

But she knows Roman is just a phone call away.

“She’s accomplished so much,” Roman said. “She wants to take care of herself and be healthy.”

When the time comes, it will surely be difficult to bring their engagements to a close.

But Towns and Roman know they’ve forged a connection that has made its mark.

“We brought you back to life,” Roman said.