Healthier, Happier Homes: One Child's Story
Healthy Home Program improving lives of families
When Marisol Alcantaro moved with her family from Puerto Rico to Lowell, MA seven years ago, her youngest daughter, Alondra, a toddler, began exhibiting signs of asthma. Over the years, the little girl’s condition worsened and began adversely affecting every aspect of her life.
“She had trouble sleeping at night – she would wake up wheezing,” Marisol recalls. “It was hard for her to breathe when she ran or when she walked up the stairs. She began to miss school a lot, and that was hard for her because she loves school. She was just so unhappy.”
When Alondra did attend school, she was often unable to participate in gym class and she couldn’t keep up with her friends on the playground or during playtime after school. Although her doctor prescribed medication, her asthma attacks continued to increase in frequency.
Marisol, who speaks little English and has had difficulty navigating the health system in America, was at a loss at how to help her daughter.
An “angel” at her door
Then, last year, she says, an “angel” came to her door - an outreach worker from the Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) representing the Healthy Homes Program. Marisol and Alondra live in the North Canal Apartments, which are owned by CBA.
The Healthy Homes Program is a federal initiative with a goal to improve the health of asthmatic children of low-income families living in Lowell. The program provides free health and home environment assessments, education about healthy home practices, home remediation services such as pest management and industrial cleaning, and items that improve health and safety such as mattress and pillow covers, HEPA vacuum cleaners, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and pest control items.
The program also provides training to community partners that work with families in Lowell, and it provides education about healthy home practices to homeowners and other community residents.
The CBA outreach worker sat down with Marisol to explain the program and to discuss her daughter’s health, as well as to familiarize her with CBA programs and services that help improve the quality of lives of residents in the Acre neighborhood and in Lowell. When he discovered that Alondra had asthma, he arranged for a community health worker from the Lowell Community Health Center to come to the home for an assessment.
Marisol said that following the assessment, the community health worker provided her with extensive education about everyday lifestyle practices that can aggravate asthma and trigger attacks. Marisol has always kept a very clean house, so she didn’t realize that dust and other allergens could still be problematic. She also never realized that household chemicals, plug-in air fresheners, perfumes, and other fragrances were aggravating her daughter’s symptoms.
“She taught me so much. She cleared up a lot of questions and doubts I had about how I could help Alondra get better,” Marisol says. “I didn’t know all of those things were making her asthma worse.”
As part of the program, Marisol received a new vacuum cleaner with a HEPA air filter, as well as a new anti-allergen mattress cover and pillow cover.
The results have been life changing for the entire family.
“There has been a huge difference. She has improved significantly to the point that she has had no major allergy problems in the past six months,” Marisol says. Today, Alondra rarely requires asthma medication; its use is limited to days of very poor air quality. She is much more active and rarely misses school. Her trips to the doctor have decreased dramatically.
Alondra said she feels so much better now than she did prior to the program. “Now I can play with my friends and it’s not so hard to breathe,” she says. “And I don’t have to miss school.” A bright, intelligent second-grader at McAvinnue Elementary, Alondra loves school and particularly art class. She proudly shows off a big gold sticker she received for paying attention in class and being a good safety role model for her classmates.
The Alcantaros were one of 160 Lowell homes that have completed the program. The most significant health improvements were among healthcare utilization and measures of physical and emotional health of the children. For example, there was a four-fold decrease in reported asthma attacks and a more than five-fold decrease in emergency room visits by the end of the program.
Breathing much easier
The changes in Alondra’s health outcome data were dramatic, reflecting significant decreases in medication and healthcare visits and an equally dramatic increases in physical activity level and emotional health.
For Marisol, the greatest reward is seeing her daughter laugh and run around playing with her friends like all the other children.
“She is just so much happier now,” she says, beaming tearfully at her daughter. “That is the greatest result of all.”
With Alondra’s asthma under control, both she and her mother are breathing much easier these days.
“It was a blessing the day that angel from Healthy Homes came and knocked at our door,” Marisol. “It has made such a huge difference in our lives.”