Loss Drives Latina to Champion Women’s Health

In recognition of National Women’s Health Week, we’re featuring Perla Ledesma (above photo, far right)—a program participant turned staff member who is helping create a culture of prevention in her community.

When Perla Ledesma lost three generations of women in her family to cancer, she could have dwelled on asking why. Instead, she focused on how to help.

“I was sad, but at the same time I was frustrated,” Ledesma said of losing her grandmother, aunt, sister and mother. “I wanted to do something for other women who suffer with this disease.”

Pursuing a degree in health might have been the most direct path for Ledesma to take, but college was not an option for her at the time.

Perla Ledesma graduates from the ALCANCE program’s Community Health Worker Leadership Academy.

“Unfortunately, for different reasons, I couldn’t go to university in Mexico,” she said. “I wanted to share information with my community about health and wellness and preventing disease, but I had to leave my dreams behind.”

Now, 20 years since moving to San Diego, that decades-old desire has been given new life. After connecting with Project ALCANCE, the mother of four began working as a community health educator for Project Concern International (PCI) last fall. She’s also studying to become a certified community health worker at San Diego City College.

“A friend of mine told me about the prevention classes through ALCANCE, and I did everything to go,” Ledesma said of first joining the program in March 2016. “For me, it was like a treasure.”

Project ALCANCE, which means “reach” in Spanish, is a PCI-led initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The program aims to improve the health and well-being of Latinos in San Diego County through basic health education workshops and referrals to local clinics. Efforts are concentrated in four low-income neighborhoods, where death rates from chronic diseases are 1.5 times higher for Latinos than the general population.

“There’s a lack of education around prevention in our community and a lot of fear toward assistance,” said Connie Lafuente, program manager for ALCANCE. “Women in particular are not making their own health a priority, so we’re trying to minimize those barriers.”

In addition to providing community presentations on chronic disease prevention in English and Spanish, Project ALCANCE also offers a Community Health Worker Leadership Academy. Interested residents, like Ledesma, receive specialized training to provide basic health education in their respective communities.

“When someone familiar is sharing this information, it adds value,” Lafuente said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who have not been to the doctor in 20 years actually making an appointment.”

Ledesma credits the loss of her family members and her own bout with gestational diabetes with giving her the ability to relate to people who might otherwise be resistant to help.

“I carry those experiences in my heart,” she said. “When these things happen, you always ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t they go to the doctor? Why didn’t they get a physical?’ I know prevention can save lives. It’s my passion to educate my community.”