Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center public health offshoot thrives in Sunnyside

Thompson Studies' Center for Community Health Promotion: Improving health in Lower Yakima Valley while gathering research data to reduce disparities
Sunnyside group
From left, Center for Community Health Promotion staff: Nathanael Marchello, Ariana Alvarez, Virginia Rodriguez, Monica Escareño, Genoveva Ibarra, Avigail Galvan, Nora Gonzalez and Rafael Hernandez. Photo by Jose Herrer

The Lower Yakima Valley is fertile ground for everything from hops to grapes to apples. Dr. Beti Thompson is no farmer, but she planted a seed 19 years ago that grew just like the crops in the valley's fields, vineyards and orchards.

Nurtured by Thompson's passion, the Center for Community Health Promotion is a thriving offshoot of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It's a busy hub for public health outreach and research, yet many at Fred Hutch draw a blank when they hear the name.

That's understandable. The Center for Community Health Promotion is located across the Cascade Mountains in the little town of Sunnyside—a three-hour drive from Seattle. But just because it's out of sight doesn't mean it should be out of mind, said Thompson, who leads the Thompson Studies group at Fred Hutch, which oversees the center.

Sunnyside site is central to health disparities research

"Most people don't know that the Hutchinson Center has an off-site office in Sunnyside, but we have a team of eight Fred Hutch employees there," Thompson said. "Their ability to work within the community to gather research data is a tremendous asset that we're eager to share with more Fred Hutchinson/University of Washington Cancer Consortium investigators."

The trained and experienced Fred Hutch staff in Sunnyside recruits, interviews and retains study participants, collects biospecimens, conducts surveys and implements interventions. The team is adept at supporting various types of projects ranging from randomized control studies to population-based surveys. 

The Fred Hutch staff in Sunnyside plays a central role in Thompson's research, which focuses on reducing health disparities between different populations. Two-thirds of Lower Yakima Valley residents are Hispanic, providing an opportunity to target the elevated risk for cancer and other diseases among Hispanics, study how well a given strategy works and share what's learned.

Community members are project partners

Thompson uses a community-based participatory research model—one in which people are partners in choosing projects that meet a need. "Our approach has always been to talk with the community, not to the community," Thompson said. "Our community advisory board really drives the direction of our research."

Each center staff member is from the Lower Yakima Valley and is bilingual in Spanish and English. "We each serve as a point person for a specific geographic area of the Lower Yakima Valley from Wapato east to Prosser and the Tri-Cities area," said Monica Escareño, community program assistant in the Sunnyside office. 

Most staff members have been center employees for a number of years. "You need to have someone people trust asking questions like 'how old are you' and 'how long have you been in the U.S.'," said Norma Mariscal, project coordinator with the Thompson Studies group in Seattle. "Under Beti's leadership, we've gained the confidence of the community."

That confidence shows every time a new project is announced. A diabetes project resulted in more than 6,000 people being screened for high glucose levels and 430 enrolling in an intervention study. The intervention (an in-home educational curriculum led by Sunnyside staff) successfully lowered HbA1c scores. 

After distributing 300 fecal occult blood test kits as part of a colon cancer project, the center received 224 completed tests—an almost unheard of return rate of 75 percent. "At our staff meetings I let staff know what the recruitment goals are and they just say 'OK' and get the job done," said Genoveva Ibarra, community project manager in Sunnyside.

An upcoming project to quantify the impact of health fairs on cancer screening enrolled 499 study participants in less than two months. "We thought recruitment for this study would take three to four months, but when the Sunnyside staff is given a challenge, they do what it takes. They even went door-to-door telling people about our study," said Elizabeth Carosso, project manager with Thompson Studies.

Pesticides exposure study

The Sunnyside team recently completed data collection for a pesticides exposure study with 100 families—60 farm worker families and 40 nonfarm workers. Participants were asked to provide biological samples and answer multiple surveys. Staff members made several visits to each home during three distinct agricultural seasons throughout one year. They collected a total of 2,376 urine samples, 564 blood samples, 1,158 buccal cell samples, more than 1,000 samples of household/vehicle dust and 1,782 surveys. 

In 2010 the EPA honored Sunnyside staff and researchers with the Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Award for their work in environmental exposure.

"The reason the Sunnyside team is so successful is because they are willing to meet community members where they are at. They're willing to work evenings and weekends and go to their homes. That makes a huge difference," said Sandra Linde, community partner from Sunnyside Community Hospital and community advisory board member.

The staff from the Sunnyside office is sought out for community presentations and serves as a resource for planning community events. Meanwhile, the center's work has become a model for community groups in the region. "They now know how research works and have learned to get their own grants," said Kathy Briant, community health educator. "Even a $1,500 grant goes a way toward helping those groups make a difference."

This spring the center turned heads at health fairs up and down the Lower Yakima Valley by introducing CASPER, the colossal colon. CASPER—an acronym for Capture All Suspicious Polyps and Eradicate Rapidly—is an inflatable intestine that people walk through to learn about colon health and about the importance of colon cancer screening. "The colon is 10-feet high and 20-feet long," Ibarra said, "and boy does it draw attention! We get lots of requests for CASPER to appear at community events."

Any attention bestowed on the Center for Community Health Promotion is welcome and deserved by the Fred Hutch staff in Sunnyside. "It really is a little gem. My work would not be possible without all the wonderful people in Sunnyside and at Fred Hutch who support these projects," Thompson said.

To learn more about working with Fred Hutch staff in the Sunnyside office, please contact Thompson at or Carosso,

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