"The better informed the community becomes, the more they will be able to take care of themselves and their families…The question most commonly asked is what can I do to stay as healthy as possible with the resources I have?”—Edgar Gil Rico, National Alliance for Hispanic Health
Fifteen years ago, Edgar Gil Rico joined the leadership of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the nation’s largest Hispanic health advocacy organization. He had no professional public health experience at the time, but he brought strong skills in community engagement and organizational management—and a personal commitment to helping improve health for all.
Edgar first came to the United States at age 26 from his native country of Colombia. Like many other Hispanic immigrants, he spent his first few years working multiple jobs without health insurance. His primary focus then was to learn English and secure a steady job to cover rent, buy food, and send money back home.
“Our community comes here, and they dream of owning a house, starting a business,” Edgar said. “They do everything for their family, and often they forget about their health, and everything they worked so hard to achieve can be lost.”
Now, as co-principal investigator for Todos Juntos: All of Us, a federally funded Alliance initiative to promote engagement in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program, Edgar sees his role as helping Hispanics focus on their health.
“The better informed the community becomes, the more they will be able to take care of themselves and their families,” Edgar said. “The question most commonly asked is what can I do to stay as healthy as possible with the resources I have?”
During National Men’s Health Month, Edgar focused his efforts on encouraging men to prioritize their health and wellness. The Alliance hosted an information fair in New York City with Columbia University Medical Center, another All of Us partner organization. Events like these give Edgar opportunities to initiate conversations with men one-on-one.
“Women are the CEOs of the family,” Edgar said. While the women often head directly to the tables, collecting information and checking out health screenings, some men choose to chat with each other outside the main event.
“These situations are perfect opportunities to talk about men’s health, but it is important to approach people with information relevant to them and with tangible examples,” Edgar said.
At one health fair, Edgar walked over to a group of middle-aged men to offer information about colon cancer. The men shook their heads and told him they were not interested. But then an older gentleman in the group spoke up and said he had recently had a colonoscopy and found out everything was fine. Edgar commended the man and let the group know that most colorectal cancers develop slowly, and early stages may not have symptoms. Screenings, he told them, can save lives.
Beyond sharing health information, Edgar also raises awareness about opportunities to take part in biomedical research. When inviting people to join All of Us, Edgar emphasizes what they get in return. Participants who give biosamples may choose to get back genetic results, including information about their genetic ancestry and traits.
Later this year, the program will also begin to offer health-related results, including information about participants’ risks for certain diseases and reactions they may have to certain medicines based on their DNA.
“With All of Us, you can learn more about yourself and make better choices in your own health journey,” Edgar explained.
Edgar grew up in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, as one of five siblings. His parents never finished high school, as they needed to work and help support their families. They instilled a strong work ethic in their children.
After graduating high school, Edgar took a job with a bank in Bogota and earned a bachelor’s degree in business. To advance his career, Edgar was eager to learn English. He found an inexpensive flight to Washington, D.C. and left his homeland—the first and only one in his family to emigrate. He worked multiple jobs, from dawn to dusk, in construction and cleaning to cover expenses, taking English classes at night.
Two years later, his hard-earned bilingual skills paid off, helping him land a job as a business program manager with a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on helping Hispanic immigrants succeed in business. Later, Edgar received his master's degree in business and community development from the Copenhagen Business School.
Evening English classes not only opened doors professionally, but also introduced Edgar to love and marriage. In 2001, he married Gina Ellison, an English teacher at the school he attended. They now have a 12-year-old daughter who attends a bilingual middle school near their home in Virginia.
“My wife has been my best mentor,” Edgar said. “She is the person who opened my eyes to everything good.”
Edgar and Gina share a passion for running and bicycling. Edgar has completed several marathons, including some to promote All of Us. His wife, a triathlete, inspired Edgar to start running.
“I had never run before—well, maybe to catch a bus in Bogota,” Edgar said. “I started with a 5K and, two years later, I was running a 50K for All of Us.”
Throughout his involvement with All of Us, Edgar has been one of the program’s most ardent advocates, working to spread the word in a way that resonates with the communities he serves.
“In order to gain the participation of those who are often underrepresented in health research, we must tailor our messages,” Edgar explained. “When we are talking about precision medicine, we need precision messaging to be able to reach all communities.”