A passion for advocacy: Amber Mullen’s CHW story

Walmart is known for providing reduced-cost goods and services across the United States. But in recent years, the company has grown to provide affordable, accessible healthcare. Walmart does this in 24 Walmart Health clinics in four states: Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. The clinics provide primary care, dental care, vision and hearing screenings, behavioral health and many other healthcare services right at select Walmart Supercenter locations. One of those services is Community Health Worker (CHW) support.

When Amber Mullen first heard about the open CHW position at the Marietta clinic, she was shocked to realize the full scope of what Walmart does. “There’s a lot of things Walmart has to offer. The clinic specifically is very affordable. For a Walmart employee, it’s $4 to see a doctor,” she explains. For other patients without insurance, services can cost as little as $40.

While Mullen had never been a CHW prior to joining Walmart Health, she has always been passionate about community well-being. And that passion, combined with her diverse experiences, supported Walmart Health’s mission: to provide affordable and accessible care to all.

“I never had the title of CHW before coming to the clinic, but I did a lot of community work since coming to Georgia in 2008. I’m licensed in mold, asbestos, lead, and hazardous materials,” Mullen explains.

In a previous role, she did community outreach to test homes for lead and remediate them, in addition to screening for asthma. She’s also been a financial literacy counselor and a housing coordinator. She’s well-versed in the social determinants of health, and she spends her days connecting Walmart visitors to care.

One of the more unique aspects of Mullen’s CHW role, compared to more “traditional” CHW positions, is her outreach strategy. “When I come in, I make sure we have magnets, pricing sheets, information, etc., on the marketing table. Then I walk through the store and meet people,” she explains.

“I go to the kids’ section, the food section – places you see mothers. I try to set appointments. The Walmart Supercenter where the clinic is located hosted a job fair, so I spoke to about 120 people and made 25 appointments just today.”

After this in-store outreach, Mullen gets started on patient cases. “A provider will send me a referral for a patient who needs services outside the realm of what we offer. They might need diabetes nutrition or a heart doctor. I call patients and have conversations with them, or I’ll go into the individual clinic room to see patients.”

While much of Mullen’s time is spent referring patients to specialists, connecting them to resources, and learning their stories, she also trains patients on advocacy. To Mullen, the most important skill for these low-income clients is the ability to advocate for themselves and their communities. And since Mullen has spent her career advocating, she brings the knowledge and skills her clients need.

An advocate for better lives

“This clinic has a large demographic of Hispanic patients. We’ve successfully advocated for Spanish materials. The Georgia Walmart Health CHW team pulled together and volunteered to assist a community hit be a tornado with clean-up efforts. Just being in the community, walking on foot, we might see people that need help. We help people get rent, get childcare, get breast exams. I’ve helped a family get housing after living in a car.”

The impact of Mullen’s and other CHWs’ advocacy is profound, especially in her underprivileged community. She reflects on some of the most impactful successes she and her team have had, saying, “We had a lady come in and get a vision and hearing test. She was an illegal immigrant. She lost her hearing aids walking to the boat.”

Mullen continues, sharing the tragic but inspiring story that this client confided in her and her team. “Her whole family had been killed in Nicaragua. She had been deported once already, and she was in the process of being deported again. She came back to be with the only living family member she has left, a brother. We got her hearing aids and connected her to a legal agency that will help legalize her citizenship.”

But perhaps Mullen’s most meaningful advocacy work came in the wake of her husband’s and son’s murders. Her husband was killed in April 2019. And her son was just 18 years old when he was also killed in March 2021. When Mullen tells the story, her pain is clear, but her passion is, too. “My son joined the Navy and was to report in December of 2021. These kids growing up have nothing to do. No transportation to go anywhere. So they’re selling drugs, getting involved in gang violence,” Mullen explains. She advocates for better lives for these young men, who remind her of her husband and son. “The street life is not their only option. I use my son’s death as a platform for this community.”

While Mullen doesn’t live in the community where her son was killed, she sees parallels between it and her current home. When her son’s community received a $99 million gift from a local nuclear plant, she saw the opportunity to protect young men like her son.

“They were going to build a $33 million wastewater treatment plant, a $1 million MLK statue, and the rest was going to salaries and strategies [to improve community well-being]. I held some local community meetings and talked about community benefits, lack of transportation, food, resources, things like that,” Mullen explains.

Mullen recognized the vast health disparities in the community – the same disparities that led to the loss of her son. With these disparities in her mind, Mullen did the informal outreach needed to assess the ultimate needs in her community. Via town halls, community meetings, and conversations with community members, Mullen identified the best strategies to address local disparities and taught the community how to advocate for itself.

“We talked about community members’ rights and what they wanted to see. And now the rest of that $60 million is being rediverted into the community.”

Due in part to Mullen’s dedication to her community, the remaining money will be used for transportation, health programs, employee training, and technical programs for local youth. “It’s all so they can live a better life, not just accept it as what it is.”

An advocate for better careers

“I do a lot of advocating. I teach others how to advocate for themselves and on a higher level.”

Because advocacy is at the core of everything Mullen does, she jumped at the opportunity to be an advisor for the Rural Community Health Worker Network’s CHW campaign. Rather than advocating for the health of clients, the focus of the RCHWN I Am A CHW campaign is to advocate for the CHWs themselves. The campaign aims to educate communities on the vital roles CHWs play, thus leading to better usage of CHW services and more support and respect for the profession.

As an advisor for the campaign, Mullen provided her personal story, along with feedback about the campaign materials and outreach strategies. “We got together, talked about the toolkit and what it meant. Everybody submitted their individual bios,” she explains. “RCHWN and all these networks offer opportunities to learn. I encourage other CHWs to be a part of the networks.”

When Mullen’s graphic was completed, she printed it in her office. “My coworkers saw it come off the printer and they were like, wow, really? It started a whole series of conversations. I shared it with my supervisors. They’re aware of it now,” Mullen says. “We really need to become involved. Now is the time. The conversations are at the forefront, so I put myself at the table.”

She receives support from her Center and Assistant Center Administrators who support her in all that she does. She all her coworkers, supervisors, managers, and CHWs from other locations to get involved with the campaign. Mullen believes that showing the world what it is they do and experience will make the greatest impact on the CHW profession. “I put it out there for the other CHWs. Don’t make decisions based on corporate policy, make decisions based on real life.”

Mullen has since used the advocacy skills she gained from the campaign within her client-based work. “I turned that around to teach the community how to advocate for themselves. If you can advocate and change, you change not only for the here and now, but for the future.”

While she’s only officially had the CHW title for a little more than a year, Mullen knows how essential her role and others like it are. From helping veterans access their records online so they don’t have to spend a full day at the VA, to getting families housing after months spent living in their cars, CHW work is vital in every sense. “CHW work is very important. From the smallest role to the biggest. Reach one, teach one.”

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