By: Marva Overton
My name is Marva Overton and I am the Executive Director of the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas (AAAHCT). I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I lived in Dallas, Texas before moving to Austin in the mid- 90s. I received an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and worked as an SAP software consultant before changing career paths. That change in career led me to AAAHCT was motivated by a passion for working with people in communities to develop and implement strategies to address issues they feel are important and impact their quality of life. I enjoy tutoring and mentoring kids, reading, watching sports and walking for exercise.
AAAHCT was the brainchild of then Assistant Director of the City of Austin Health & Human Services Department (COA HHS), Shannon Jones and others. Following a health disparities conference presented by the COA HHS department in 2005, which highlighted the stark differences in mortality rates for African Americans from the 15 leading causes of death as compared to other racial/ethnic groups, an announcement was made that AAAHCT was being formed. The mission of the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas is to empower African Americans living in the Central Texas counties of Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson to improve their health status through outreach, advocacy and education.
I’ve been working for AAAHCT at some level since 2007 when I was asked to step-in and keep the organization going after the person who was heading it up at the time took another job. One of the most challenging aspects of the job has been building a track record of success with very little funding. As with most start-up non-profits, it takes the work of dedicated volunteers to get the ball rolling.
Persistent and consistent are two words that come to mind when I think about organization and my involvement with it.
AAAHCT owes its status as a Komen grantee to Dr. Mary Lou Adams, PhD, RN, FNP, FAAN. Dr. Adams is well known in the breast health community for her pioneering work to reduce breast cancer mortality among African American women. In fact, it is her evidenced-based program, African American Breast Cancer Outreach, on which AAAHCT’s Project Breast CARE is modeled. While I knew of Dr. Adams, I met her personally in 2011, when I asked her to write an article on breast health for AAAHCT’s newsletter. Later that same year, she contacted me and suggested the organization apply for funding from Komen Austin.
Knowing that we are helping to educate women and provide some with an opportunity they would not otherwise have to receive breast health services, reinforces our passion to do this work. Wilhemenia “Mina” Kodjoe, is one such client. We first met Mina at an outreach event in 2012, the first year we were a grantee. Mina is from Ghana and was not very familiar with navigating the health care system in Austin. She had not had a mammogram in about 15 years. Mina got her mammogram at a screening AAAHCT offered with Seton Healthcare Family’s mobile unit. Providing access to mobile mammography was a stated goal in our Project Breast CARE grant. Mina has stayed connected with AAAHCT and we have continued to assist her in getting her annual mammogram through the Pink Bus. It was also with our help that Mina was able to get access to a medical home with Lone Star Circle of Care. In 2013, Mina was diagnosed with stage 1 kidney cancer. She was successfully treated and is doing well today.
It’s hard to meet someone whose has not been touched by breast cancer and I am no exception. I’ve had two friends that were diagnosed with breast cancer. One was in her mid-twenties and the other just a few years past forty when diagnosed. Fortunately for both, it was detected at an early stage and they have been survivors for 10+ years. My sister-in-law had two very close friends who did not fare as well. They both died from breast cancer, both in their 40s. One had triple negative breast cancer. I hope that more research will be done to better understand and develop treatment for tumors that have poorer prognosis and hit African American women, especially those under 45, at higher rates.
While overall African American women have a lower incidence rate from breast cancer than Non-Hispanic white women, the mortality rate continues to be higher. There is not a singular or simple reason for this. We must not accept this as the norm and assume that it has to be this way. As African American women we must be aware of and address those risk factors we can impact.
As recommended by Susan G. Komen® we must get screened, know our family history, know our normal, and live a healthy lifestyle.
However, we can’t stop there. We must be active in addressing the larger, systemic issues that play a monumental role in our chances for having good health and better outcomes when we are diagnosed. Issues such as education, employment, access to high-quality health care, affordable housing, neighborhood safety and transportation, criminal justice, all play a role in our community’s health and well-being. Each of us must find our part to play in addressing these root causes of health inequity.