As we approach the 57th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid, health care advocates know it takes tenacity and grit to achieve an equitable vision of what health access should look like, especially for seniors who navigate the complexities of long-term services and supports. That determination is often forged by their own and/or loved ones’ harmful experiences in the health care system–experiences that transform a citizen into an activist. Countless organizers and volunteers have contributed to building a better health care system, most of whom rarely receive the recognition they deserve. In that spirit, the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation (The Center) at Community Catalyst turns the spotlight on a community outreach organizer in Philadelphia, PA, Ms. Yvonne Hughes. We met her through the Center’s enduring partnership with Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN).

Ms. Hughes is a community outreach organizer for over 20 years, but her journey as an advocate began when, as a young parent to five-year-old twins, she suddenly lost her eyesight. She had to find her own resources and advocate for herself when others wouldn’t or didn’t know how to help. Through persistence and perseverance, she learned how to maneuver in the system, got an education, and gained recognition by parlaying that inside knowledge to teach others. “People would recommend me to parents in the school district,” Ms. Hughes recounted. “I would show up at different meetings, started researching stuff, networking.” Ms. Hughes then started her 20-year tenure with City Light (no longer in existence) and later with a local advocacy organization, Public Citizens for Children Youth, now known as Children First.

Among her many roles in the community, Ms. Hughes now advocates for improved and patient-centered senior health care access, after her own experiences as an aging adult with home healthcare, non-emergency medical transportation, and lack of equity in services. After a severe illness left her unable to climb stairs, Ms. Hughes attempted to secure a single-floor home to accommodate her limitations. Her experience with the Pennsylvania Housing Authority left her feeling dismissed and unheard. Naturally, she turned that fire into fuel to help others. “I make herself available, with literacy. I live in West Philadelphia, and we are making a community hub to help connect people with resources. To me, it’s accessibility. People don’t have access to computers. My goal is to make things as easy as can be and help connect people with their coordinators. I work with underserved, disabled, seniors…and parents.”

Additionally, Ms. Hughes is scaling up her knowledge. “I’m a trainer. I like to train the trainer,” she stated. “My goal is to teach others because people are still learning. I’m a lifelong learner.” At a recent meeting with seniors, a discussion around a training piece that could help seniors who are hard of hearing or deaf revealed other senior sites are resistant to including new options and programs. “And I had a problem with that,” said Ms. Hughes, so she taught others how to “go in the back door to get what’s needed.” Even though her role as a trainer keeps her busy, she enjoys stepping into her roots as an outreach coordinator. “I don’t have a problem putting on sneakers and knocking on doors.”

Today Ms. Hughes lives with her adult daughter, and they both contribute to the household. In many ways, Ms. Hughes is living and aging happily and successfully, although she expresses what many elders do. “I want to be able to live my own life. My husband passed away when my kids were 18, about 25 years ago. You want to have your own place, be independent, cook, clean, and pay your own bills. I’d rather work and get paid for my abilities. Sometimes you’re labeled ‘disabled’ and people assume you have something wrong intellectually because you can’t see. So you have to fight the stigmas.” Like many other life-long advocates on their professional journeys, Ms. Hughes’ desire to help others and use her advocacy skills continues to be a priority in her later life. “I’m planning to go to a training soon, and I’ll learn more about leadership for ADA, and I’ll share what I learn. Reading, studying, working … I’m learning every day.”