USC’s PASOs program helps Hispanic community

rfriedman@thestate.comNovember 10, 2013 

A Columbia-based organization is working to improve the health of South Carolina’s rapidly growing Hispanic community, one step at a time.

PASOs, hosted by the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, helps connect Latinos with health care and social service resources, educates families on health issues and parenting skills, and trains grassroots community health leaders.

Founded in 2005, PASOs began as an acronym: Perinatal Awareness for Successful Outcome. But as the organization’s focus shifted from assisting pregnant Latina women to assisting the entire Latino community, executive director Julie Smithwick says the acronym was dropped and the name became just “PASOs,” which means “steps” in Spanish.

Smithwick believes the name fits.

“It’s about steps that families, communities and organizations can take so that our growing Latino population can have strong and healthy families,” she said.

Just how fast is the state’s Hispanic population increasing? According to Pew Research, South Carolina saw a 154 percent increase between 2000 and 2011, making it the second fastest growing population in the country, just behind Alabama. Furthermore, Smithwick says that Latino children now make up nearly 10 percent of South Carolina’s children 5 and younger.

“These are the kids who within the next five years will be going to school,” she said. “You want the parents to have the tools to make sure they’re developing on target and have health resources.”

PASOs does that by empowering Latinos through education. Monthly workshops cover topics such as family planning methods, positive discipline techniques for children, stress management for mothers, benefits of breastfeeding and immigrant rights.

To help reduce the cases of spina bifida and other brain and spinal cord conditions, PASOs partnered with the Greenwood Genetics Center and the S.C. Birth Defects Prevention Program to provide free folic acid supplements to women of childbearing age and to educate them on how the vitamins can prevent birth defects.

Word-of-mouth has been the most effective means of spreading the word about PASOs, and this has made the presence of trained community leaders a vital part of their mission. In all, PASOs has more than 60 grassroots leaders working to provide guidance and education in their neighborhoods.

In 2008, PASOs began expanding its programs beyond Richland and Lexington counties; it now serves 13 counties across the state, with locations in Greenville, Newberry, Saluda, Edgefield, Clarendon, Williamsburg, Berkeley, Dorchester, Charleston, Beaufort and Jasper counties. Programs are launched and fine-tuned in the Columbia-area before being offered elsewhere.

Smithwick is optimistic that PASOs will continue to expand.

“Eventually we want to make our services available to every county that needs us,” she said.

The growth has made it possible for the organization to reach many of South Carolina’s rural communities. In October, PASOs was recognized by the S.C. Office of Rural Health as the 2013 Outstanding Rural Health Initiative of the Year.

They have the numbers to support their success. So far this year, PASOs has:

•  Assisted 691 individuals seeking help with cases ranging from obtaining Medicaid for their children to enrolling in prenatal care.

•  Hosted 91 community outreach events, reaching more than 4,700 people

•  Held 66 radio shows on three Spanish radio channels across the state

•  Provided education for more than 600 people in more than 200 classes

•  Met with more than 400 organizations looking to serve Latinos more efficiently

•  Distributed more than 1,056 bottles of folic acid.

Most of the organization’s funding comes from grants, but Smithwick says it’s in the process of launching a new fundraising plan and hopes to attract donors who believe in PASOs’ vision. Individuals can also help by volunteering to be program ambassadors.

“PASOs is good for our state because we are supporting Latino community leaders as they strengthen their skills and promote health and wellness throughout our state,” she said. “This helps children and families be stronger and helps our state save money.”

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