Connecting Families

Published Nov. 22, 2016: A new partnership between United Way and the Children's Healthcare Access Program is providing a go-to resource to help parents protect their children’s health and find pediatric care, helping parents like Marcella Gutierrez-Barajas and Christine Walls sleep easier at night.

Video by Charles Ashley; story by Dave Phillips

Editor's note: To connect with the Children's Health Access Program, contact 2-1-1 or click here for more information (wchap.org).

A sick child presents a world of worry for parents. Beyond the concern over a child's well-being, there are doctor's visits, trips to pick up prescriptions and missed days of school and work.

Marcella Gutierrez-Barajas was one of these parents. When her son Edgar was an infant, he would frequently struggle to swallow milk, often spitting it up. At 11 months, his problem worsened, and his breathing was abnormal. One night when Edgar was gasping for breath, his family rushed him to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with asthma.

Parents in Marcella’s position now have a go-to resource to help protect their children’s health and find pediatric care thanks to a new collaboration between United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Children's Healthcare Access Program (CHAP).

“Before CHAP, oftentimes routine and preventative care was not accessible," said Dr. Deirdre Young, Vice President of Health and Equity for United Way for Southeastern Michigan. "Now, these same families can build a relationship with a pediatrician and increase positive health outcomes for their children. This approach reduces healthcare cost and keeps kids healthy. When kids are healthy, they miss fewer days of school and have better educational outcomes. It’s just a win-win for our community.”

From left, Marcella Gutierrez-Barajas, her son Edgar and Adriana Zuniga, a Community Health Worker for Wayne CHAP, look over health information. Edgar suffers from asthma but has seen health improvements since becoming involved with CHAP.


CHAP was launched in 2008 in Kent County and expanded to include 26 counties in Michigan, including Wayne and Macomb. It's also available statewide via Virtual CHAP, available through 2-1-1, a nationwide referral service.

Since January, United Way has helped nearly 600 families receive CHAP resources, like asthma education, through our 2-1-1 call center.

“This work exemplifies the importance of United Way leading the charge to improve health outcomes in Greater Detroit,” Deirdre said. “Our staff helps families schedule and keep their doctor appointments, know when to go to the doctor’s office versus the emergency room and overcome other barriers like transportation needs," she added. 

For Marcella, the asthma diagnosis was just the first step to improving Edgar's care. The family did not understand the severity of his condition, and only gave Edgar medication when he was showing symptoms.

Once Adriana Zuniga, a Community Health Worker for Wayne CHAP, explained the steps the family could take to manage his condition, Edgar improved significantly.

Asthma education is particularly important in Detroit, which is the epicenter of asthma in the state, according to a March 2016 report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Detroit children with persistent asthma who were enrolled in Medicaid visited the emergency room for asthma care 50 percent more frequently than the state average.

“I am very grateful, and I feel wonderful now that I am understanding more about what asthma is about and the severity of it,” the Spanish-speaking Marcella said through an interpreter.

Just as important as the care and information provided, United Way and CHAP are forming relationships with community members to make sure they have the knowledge and support needed to improve their lives.

“It makes me feel great that I can come in and help a family, especially their child,” Adriana said. “I love to help people. I love to help my community. CHAP is a very important program, especially for our community.”

Fit kids

Asthma education is just one of the many programs United Way is able to refer folks to through 2-1-1 and CHAP. Fit Kids 360 is a program for overweight children that teaches them about healthy foods and physical activity.

Christine Walls, who was concerned about her family’s weight, said Fit kids has been life changing.

“I realized I had to do something about it, but I didn’t know how to get started,” Christine said. “Fit Kids gave me the tools to know what I needed to do, how I needed to do it and basically just gave me a boost.”

Through Fit Kids, Christine and daughters Aron, An’tinique and Angelea trained for a 5K race along the Dequindre Cut, training once a week for 12 weeks. The family recently participated in the race for the second time, and three of the four beat their time from the previous year.

Christine Walls examines food labels with her daughters. CHAP and its Fit Kids 360 program has helped the family lose a large amount of weight over the past two years.

The program has made the biggest difference for Angelea, who is now 6. During her first run, she was whining and crying, but she finished.

“This year, she was motivated, she was excited and she was ready,” Christine said. “She was hollering and yelling at us and telling us ‘Let’s go! Let’s get it!’ Sure enough, she beat all of us and she was standing there rooting for everybody else to come through.”

Angelea saved special encouragement for Christine, urging her to have a “great finish” — to run hard to the finish line.

“She kept hollering at me ‘Run, mama, run!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ She’s like ‘RUN!’ I’m like ‘I will!’” Christine said.

“That’s what it’s about, just really being motivated. It’s not about beating any times. It’s not about trying to beat anybody else. It’s all about doing the best that you can do and coming across that finish line strong.”

In addition to running, the family learned yoga, belly dancing and karate, and they love to play the “Just Dance” video games, which require players to perform specific moves along to music.

Exercise no longer feels like a chore.

“It’s fun,” Christine said. “You can do it and enjoy yourself, and then you see the benefits in your weight, in your clothes, and you may not see it instantly, but everyone else knows it.”

In addition to exercise, Christine teaches her kids how to eat healthier. They look at nutrition information labels while shopping and make smart substitutions, like using applesauce instead of sugar.

“We’ve seen a lot of positive effects from this,” Christine said, adding, “This is not a diet. This is changing your lifestyle for the better. We’ve learned we can still enjoy all the cakes and cookies, but we can eat it in moderation, and why not bake it ourselves? That way we know what we’re putting inside it.”

The program also provided a confidence boost to Christine as a parent.

“I was at a rough point in my life,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t know if I was going to be judged because looking at how much weight my kids had gained, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Fit Kids supported me.

“I brag about Fit Kids no matter where I go because of the positive impact that it’s had in my life.”