Category Archives: Health Ambassador Program

Health Ambassador Program Partners with HPP to Bring Ambassadors to Vaccine sites

As vaccination efforts continue in San Mateo County with a focus on equity, the health ambassadors offer a warm smile and support to those who are waiting their turn in line, and those who have just been vaccinated. The Health Ambassador Program (HAP) that is housed under the Office of Diversity and Equity has partnered with Health Policy and Planning (HPP) to bring health ambassadors to vaccination sites. The Health Ambassadors are highly skilled community members who complete at least 5 mental health courses including the Parent Project, Mental Health First Aid, Wellness Recovery Action Plan and many others. This program is part of the community empowerment branch of ODE, and they serve to increase community awareness of services available in San Mateo County and connect individuals with support, help reduce stigma around mental health and substance use, and improve the ability of community members to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges.

The Health Ambassadors are a vital resource, the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many reasons and because of the grief, financial loss and isolation we have seen a rise in anxiety and/or depressive disorders. Last July, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use. [1] Additionally, young adults, people of color, and essential workers, reported disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and suicidal ideation.[2] Access to resources is also an issue, communities of color have historically faced challenges accessing mental health resources. The Health Ambassadors are peers, and well-known members of their communities that know firsthand how essential it is to have access to mental health resources. Cyntia, who has helped with vaccination clinics in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven shares with us, “before the pandemic, people didn’t even want to accept materials that had mental health information on it. They would tell us ‘I don’t need that, I’m not crazy.’ But the pandemic has changed things, no one has turned away any of the materials we are giving out. I think people are realizing that we all need help sometimes, and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about.”

HAPs bring a wealth of knowledge to their work. Many of them are consumers of services or family members of someone that has experienced mental health or substance use challenges. Additionally, many of them are bilingual and enable us to increase our language capacity at the vaccination sites. They have also been able to hand out information about county wide resources for food insecurity, housing as well as financial resources. Amada, who has been a health ambassador for years stated that “even just asking people how they are doing makes all of the difference. There are some people that come to get a vaccine and are really scared of the symptoms they will experience. It helps to calm them when I can tell them about my own experience, and they can visually see that I am okay.” Also, “there has been so much sadness from unemployment, grief from losing loved ones as well as anxiety about getting sick in our community, but we are seeing hope at the end of all of this.”

Cyntia, Amada and Lourdes all became HAPs because their children were going through a difficult time and they needed more tools in order to be able to help them. “I am worried about the youth; I became a HAP to help my daughter when she suffered through mental health challenges and I fear that the youth are really suffering during this time.” Pediatric mental health related emergency department visits have increased for youth 5-11 and 12-17, 24% and 31% with youth of color and LGBTQ youth being at a heightened risk of suicidal ideation even before the pandemic.[3] Community members that are well informed about mental health and help break down stigma, and support people in accessing services are vital especially during this time. If you are interested in becoming a Health Ambassador and supporting your community more information can be found here.


[1] Mental Health, Substance Use and Suicidal Ideation during the COVID-19 Pandemic ( https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm)

[2] The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/#:~:text=During%20the%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic,largely%20stable%20since%20spring%202020.

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6945a3.htm

Immigrant Mother Uses BHRS Program to Change Her Life and Help Community

Maria Cuellar, BHRS Health Ambassador

When Maria Cuellar became a BHRS Health Ambassador in 2016, she made a commitment to reconcile her past – and she did.  She tells what it was like to reunite with her two daughters 26 years after making the painful decision to leave them behind in her native country, El Salvador.

 “I hugged them with all my heart and we spent hours talking. One of my daughters has a bachelor’s degree in language and the other became a doctor this year,” she said.

Cuellar says all the BHRS Health Ambassador Program (HAP) trainings she participated in helped her become a better parent while raising her other two children here in the U.S.  

She is one of nearly 30 people who have graduated since the program’s inception in 2014.

Health Ambassadors help link individuals to care by spreading awareness about BHRS resources and services and in turn helps BHRS better understand the community’s needs.   

To read more BHRS “Wellness Matters” newsletter articles, click here.

Empowering Youth to be Change Agents

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HAP-Y Cohort

The Health Ambassador Program for Youth (HAP-Y) is an innovative and community-developed program delivered by StarVista. It is designed for youth ages 16 to 24 who are interested in advocating for communities that have been touched by mental health challenges, raising awareness about mental wellness and increasing access to mental health services. The program is funded by innovation funds through the Mental Health Services Act, which are designed to engage individuals, families and communities to be active change agents regarding wellness, particularly behavioral health. The program is managed by BHRS’ Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE), whose primary focus is reaching and engaging vulnerable families and communities in San Mateo.  

The participants of the program, most whom have lived experience with mental health challenges, participate in a 14-week training program, creating a personal Wellness Recovery Action, and learning about common mental health challenges and the principles of suicide prevention.

HAP-Y Cohort

After completing the trainings, HAP-Y graduates are encouraged to conduct community presentations to start conversations and increase knowledge about mental health and community supports available. In the first year of HAP-Y, 20 youth successfully completed the program. They have already reached an audience of over 300 through classroom-based presentations. Preliminary evaluations suggest an increase of over 30 percent in knowledge of where to seek supports and services for mental health issues.

HAP-Y has seen success, not only in reaching an audience, but in providing a sense of community for participants. HAP-Y graduates said the group provided a welcoming and loving environment, where they could have real conversations about topics that they are often unable to have with their peers.

As the program enters its second year, there is an additional focus on continuing to engage past participants and building on their skills and passions. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please contact hapy@star-vista.org.

The next 14-week HAP-Y training will start on May 15th and will be hosted in Half Moon Bay. Please share this information with any youth you think may be interested in participating in this program. 

Co-written by Narges Dillon, Brenda Nunez & Islam Hassanein, StarVista and Nancy Chen, ODE

Supporting Healthy Families and Building Stronger Communities

The Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE) had the honor of graduating two Health Ambassadors, Maria Valencia Trinidad Hernandez and Alexi Rosales, during the monthly Mental Health and Substance Abuse Recovery Commission on November 1st.  They each shared with the group their heartfelt personal stories and dedication to help support healthy families and build stronger communities.

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Left to right: David Young (Director of BHRS), Maria Valencia Trinidad Hernandez (HAP graduate), Alexi Rosales (HAP graduate), Jei Africa (Director of ODE)

The Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE) started the Health Ambassador Program (HAP) in 2014.  HAP was first created per the request of parents subsequent to graduating the Parent Project program. After their 12-week course  spent sharing their stories, learning new parenting skills, and supporting one another, the graduates expressed wanting to continue learning about mental illness and staying  connected with each other, their neighbors and community members.

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