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Viviana Gonzalez said when she was 13, then a student at the now-closed Highland View Middle School and just a year removed from her native Mexico, her mother was struggling to adapt to life in the United States and learn enough English to get a driver’s license.

"She told me I would have to get a driver’s license myself at 15 and help the family with things like filling out paperwork," Gonzalez said.

The pressure of her family demands distracted her from school, Gonzalez said.

But now, as the Benton County Health Navigator stationed at Linus Pauling Middle School, on the site of the former Highland View School, Gonzalez gets to help families in similar situations so that the kids experiencing what she did don't have to deal with as much pressure to help their family members. 

“I was the navigator for my home. What I tell students is I’m here to release pressure for them so they can focus on school,” she said.

Gonzalez is one of three Benton County health navigators stationed in schools, along with health navigators at Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools. Gonzalez said health navigators are stationed in these schools because they host the dual immersion programs and have high rates of students on free and reduced lunches.

Gonzalez started in the role in 2015, about a year after the county began embedding health navigators in schools. She said the job involves connecting families to resources for help, including assisting families enrolling in the Oregon Health Plan; helping families make appointments for health services such as vision, dental and mental health; connecting families with free community resources; and occasionally serving as a translator during doctor visits. 

“My job here is just being that connection for families,” she said.

Olivia Meyers Buch, the financial services director for the Corvallis School District, said the district and Benton County split the costs of employing the school-based health navigators.

Gonzalez said having health navigators in schools makes them accessible to families that may have limited transportation options and embeds them in an organization that is trusted by families.

“The advantage is we are placed where the community is,” she said.

About 60 percent of the people she helps are non-native English-speakers, Gonzalez said, but even some native English speakers need help and guidance with filling out forms and finding health resources.

While her work is focused on health issues, Gonzalez said she can connect families to a broader array of resources than just health programs. She said she often helps kids find scholarships to do school activities and play sports. Gonzalez even helped 14 kids attend summer camp for the first time last summer by helping them apply for 4-H programs and scholarships. She also can connect people to community services like the Assistance League, which provides clothing, hygiene products and other necessities for needy kids.

Gonzalez, who worked at the Greater Albany Public Schools’ welcome center from 2003 until she became a health navigator, said since she has experienced similar issues as the kids she helps, she is able to understand them and connect them to resources that they need. And she likes that she does this at the school that replaced her old middle school. That her oldest son attends Linus Pauling and her younger sons will in the future is rewarding too, she said.

“It was nice to come back here to continue my journey,” Gonzalez said.

Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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