Community Health Navigator Ray Marion on the Two-Way Nature of Teaching

Ms. Ray Marion could teach a master class in how to change people’s habits by being compassionate and leading by example. She volunteers with JASA Health Services as a Community Health Navigator (CHN) in North Brooklyn. JASA is a more than 50-year-old agency annually serving about 40,000 older adults in New York, and the CHN program is part of its community-based Chronic Disease Management program.

What this means on the ground is that Marion coaches patients as they are discharged from the hospital on blood pressure control, blood glucose monitoring and healthy eating. And she does this from the vantage point of having walked in their shoes. Years ago Marion rather suddenly found herself unable to see, and when she went to the Emergency Room, she was told that she would regain her sight, but only if she learned to manage her diabetes.

Now she is committed to preventing others in her community from suffering similar impacts of diabetes and other health conditions.

Finding Meaning in Volunteering

“After I retired [from work in restaurants] I was bogged down with health issues, and was mostly at home,” said Marion, but she wanted to get out. Her neighbor encouraged her to try the senior center in Williamsburg (JASA), so she did.

“When I first started I was a member of the center, I joined the programs, did exercise classes and different things… but when Arielle (Basch, Senior Director of Health Services and Business Development at JASA) started the Chronic Disease Self-Management program, she volunteered me,” said Marion.

Ray Marion is a volunteer for JASA’s Community Health Navigator program sharing her insight, personal experience and expertise.

Basch explains she couldn’t help herself from volunteering Marion (with the hope that Marion would be game) as she held “so much insight and expertise.” Marion found the program enlightening in that it was packed with information, some of which she knew, some she didn’t. In training others on the details, Marion found she was helping herself.

“This program gives you more in-depth information on how to eat better, with different examples of healthy foods and meal plans, different ways to take care of yourself, how to manage your medications,” said Marion. “It’s so important. And, it teaches you how to assess and control your blood sugar, too.”

There are group classes at the center on diabetes and healthy eating, but also CHNs go into the neighborhood, into nearby homes and talk to people directly about how to control diabetes and other conditions. “If I don’t have the answers, I can find them,” said Marion.

“If I had the information I have now when I first became a diabetic [in her 30s], I wouldn’t have had to go through what I did for 40 some years,” Marion said.

At the doctor’s office one might be offered the same information, but it’s hard to follow directions on slips of paper. Much easier is to have someone personally experienced with the condition explain exactly how it’s going to work.

Much Valued Volunteer

Marion spends four to five hours in the morning the days she teaches classes at the center and will spend an hour or two in people’s homes about twice a week explaining how to manage diabetes. Now she is kept busy on alternate days at the center conducting blood pressure readings for community members, which she does on home visits as well. She missed these face-to-face encounters during the pandemic and is excited to be getting back to in-person work after supporting people remotely for more than a year.

“Clients really depend upon Ray to know their numbers and manage their blood pressure,” said Basch.

It’s valuable work as Marion says, “If their blood pressure is high, I can provide help right there”—whether it be via coaching on the importance of taking medication, eating healthily, getting exercise, going to the doctor and in the most serious cases, (working with JASA staff) to call an ambulance.

Marion also treasures what she has learned about how to eat healthily, and has noticed that by slowly switching to a more plant-based diet she is eating much better. Previously, Marion admits, at times she would “tend to go off the rails,” diet-wise, and eat things she knew she shouldn’t.

“But since I’m teaching the program I try to lead by example now. When I’m helping someone else, I’m helping myself, too. I can’t tell them one thing and then do something else.”

‘If I had the information I have now when I first became a diabetic, I wouldn’t have had to go through what I did for 40 some years.’

Basch has learned a thing or two from Marion, as she has given her a peek into how life can actually work for diabetics, and realistic expectations for managing the disease. Basch has accompanied Marion on home visits, and said, “she’ll be talking about healthy eating with a client, and Ray will say, ‘Look, I used to love to drink Coke all the time, and the reality is now once a month I might look forward to half a can.’ ” This reinforced to Basch that supporting incremental changes to eating habits rather than suggesting a total overhaul or rigid diet plan is more effective. Marion’s approach is to provide tips and pointers on how to eat in a way that remains beneficial but is doable, is exemplary.

“Doctors can tell you what you’re supposed to do and advise you how—'You gotta do this, you can’t eat that’—but sometimes the changes are so extreme they make you think ‘Oh god, my life is over,’ ” Marion said.

“When I became a diabetic, I went to the doctor because I was blind for a month. I didn’t know what it was, they had me in the hospital, and it was so scary because everything was black. They told me, ‘Once you control your blood sugar, you’ll be all right,’ ” said Marion.

“In the meantime you’re losing your mind, you figure you’re going to be blind for the rest of your life. You just don’t want to go through that. You want to take care of yourself. You also want to help others in the community do the same.” said Marion.

But to get through to her clients now, she knows, “You got to talk to them where they’re at.”

Photo: Ray Marion on a trip to Washington, DC, where she presented at the NCOA Age + Action Conference in 2019.