Program Navigates Need to Spread Health Literacy and Access to Basic Needs

Eight years ago, something really great happened in Alaska. The Alaska Literacy ProgramProvidence Alaska Medical Center, and University of Alaska Anchorage collaborated to find a way to reach and address the health care needs of the immigrant and refugee community: people helping people. 

To meet the needs oimmigrants and refugeesthe group would need to find ways to both communicate in various languages and build trust with people who are new to the countryAnd so, the Peer Leader Navigator (PLN) program was born.  

“You would hear these stories of people not understanding what the doctor just said. Or, they had no doctor. Or, someone developed diabetes and did not know what to do,” said PLN Program Coordinator Nyabony Gat. 

Since 2013, four PLNs have grown to 20, and 4,896 clients have received assistance related to health care, housing, and food supplies. 

At its core, the program works like thispeer navigators complete training on a social or health topic of interest or importance. Then they take their new knowledge and—often in their native languagespass it on to people in their community.  

The program started as a way to build health literacy, but as relationships have formed and understanding of needs has grown, PLNs now also help people find housing, food, and social services assistance. 

Most peer navigators come from the Alaska Literacy Program, a ProLiteracy member, as former English language learners with an interest in health care, Gat saidAs immigrants themselves, they know what it’s like to not know where to go for basic services in a new community. 

Etevise MacDonald recently finished her training to become a PLN. She is Samoan and understands what someone new to the country might struggle with. 

“Before I moved here, I am that person that doesn’t have any resources on where to go for help,” she said. I put my feet in other people’s shoes, and I know what families need. 

A group of Peer Leader Navigators participated in a walk for breast cancer awareness. 

Cultural Understanding 

Beyond an initial nine-month training, PLNs meet every Tuesday to learn about a topic. They are trained by experts so they have reliable information to share.  

Marisol Vargas was in the first PLN group trained back in 2013. She remembers her first project was to learn and educate people about earthquakes. She quickly learned that it’s not just relaying information, because immigrants have past experiences from their home countries that are far from how things are done in the United States. 

“A person might say, ‘In my culture when you have an earthquake, you run from your house.’ Another person from Africa says ‘I don’t know, we don’t have earthquakes there, I don’t' know what I can do with this.’ But we teach the community the safety [measures here in the United States],” she said.  

Vargas, who speaks Spanish, said it’s important that people understand that they can keep their customs and cultures but it’s also important to adapt to life here. 

In Africa, they don’t drink soda. Here, a lot of people drink soda. We need to teach the kids. When you don’t drink soda in your countryand what you see hereand it’s so good, you want to drink a lot of soda. And we say, ‘No.’ We need to keep your culture. You can try one, but not too much,” she said. “[They] need to keep the culture [they came from] but integrate with America.” 

More recently, the program provided PLNs with training on the COVID-19 vaccines and where to direct community members to get one. 

Vargas said people have a lot of questions about the vaccine, but she doesn’t always have answers. In moments like that, she said they are careful not to say something wrong, and what is most important is that they share accurate information. 

MacDonald agreed. 

There [were] a lot of people who needed a vaccine, so we have been trained by doctors and nurses,” MacDonald said. “They trained us how to get out the information to the people in our community. [Community members] have been hurt so bad during the pandemic. 


Helping People Where They’re At 

MacDonald said she is shy by nature, but becoming a PLN has helped her as much as the people she assists 

“This program [has helped] me a lot. I can speak. I can talk. It doesn’t matter if English is my second language. I just go as long as the person understands me,” she said.  

And that’s exactly how most connections are made. PLNs help people without requiring them to come to classes or actively seek information.  

Each peer navigator has a card with a phone number on it to hand out when the opportunity is right, and there is a hotline and they attend occasional community outreach eventsbut much of the time, PLNs are sharing resources with people they meet in their daily lives, Vargas said. 

“Sometimes you can find the people to help in the store,” she said. Maybe you hear someone asking about information and you step in. The person was talking about the internet and affordable care and I say, ‘I can give you information about this.’" 

Vargas said once she connects with someone, that person might talk with a friend who will then reach out themselves for assistance.  

By sharing information, the community becomes stronger and healthier. For MacDonald, seeing the impact is all the reward she needs. She often tears up thinking about how she has helped her community, pointing out that she doesn’t only mean her Samoan community, but everyone from any culture. 

I go anywhere, I talk to anybody,” she said. “[It might be], ‘Hey, do you know that I know your family really needs help? I know you have a lot of children. Here’s these resources. The EBT money that comes to all the children in the family. You can get this information in the schools. If I can’t help, I refer to other PLNs. 

Gat said with each new cohort, the program assesses where the gaps are in reaching the community and tries to train PLNs in needed languages. 

What’s really amazing, she said, is the PLNs continuous desire to learn more 

“I’ve never worked with a group of individuals who want so much training,” she said. “They really do use it. It’s such a vital tool to get into the community.” 

For Additional Health Related Resources

  1. Go to to log-in or create an account.
  2. Once you’ve logged in, click on Tutor/Teacher on the Welcome page.
  3. Select Health Literacy from the menu on the left.



Related Posts

Subscribe to our Blog

Never miss a blog post! Sign up to receive daily, weekly, or monthly email blog notifications.

Sign Up


See the Latest Research

Research - White Paper

Research proves the correlation between obtaining literacy skills and the return on investment related to improving an adult’s life and future.

Learn More