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A new view of health

Twin Cities LISC has been working for years on St. Paul’s East Side, one of the poorest and most diverse communities in the country.

Recently, a new program has helped LISC see the neighborhood with fresh eyes, finding opportunities to get even more out of existing programs and bring in new investment—all aimed at improving community health and wellness.

“I’m a program officer with a health lens,” says Mary Wheeler, Twin Cities LISC’s Community Health Advocate.

“I’m a program officer with a health lens,” says Mary Wheeler, Twin Cities LISC’s Community Health Advocate (CHA).

The Twin Cities is one of four local LISC offices around the country participating in the Community Health Advocates initiative (the others are Indianapolis, New York and the Bay Area).

Seeded by State Farm and The Kresge Foundation, the program aims to address local health issues by building on and connecting existing comprehensive community development work with a strategic approach that's driven by data. 

“We’ve been doing community development for a long time,” says Amy Gillman, a national program director for community health and early childhood facilities at LISC. "With the CHA initiative, we’re getting away from patchwork, single-project investments—a grocery store over here, a clinic over there."

“This is an integrated approach that better coordinates our resources to address the major challenges to good health in low-income communities,” she adds.

A growing partnership between two local agencies on the city's East Side shows how this is working. LISC has recently provided funding through its Healthy Futures Fund to Lutheran Social Services (LSS) to build Rolling Hills Apartments, an affordable housing development. LISC also financed the expansion of a community health care center by West Side Community Health Services (WSCHS). 

During her first six months on the job, when Wheeler met and talked with more than 60 local stakeholders on the East Side—everyone from resident leaders to St. Paul’s commissioner of health—she saw an opportunity to build relationships between the clinic and the refugee and immigrant communities living at Rolling Hills. 

“A neighborhood clinic alone isn’t the answer to community health. Research shows that, and we see it, too,” Wheeler says. “For example, it’s not uncommon in ethnically diverse neighborhoods for a resident or family to travel across town to access a clinic instead of the one just four blocks from their home. Cultural competency and connection matter. The diversity of East St. Paul is ever emerging, changing, which is a challenge for any provider to manage.

At meetings at Rolling Hills, residents and staff from the apartment complex and the clinic discussed how to make preventive health care a priority.

“This partnership with Rolling Hills residents was a real opportunity for the clinic to become better connected to the evolving diversity of its surrounding neighborhood.”

With Wheeler’s input, LISC has funded a new exam room onsite at Rolling Hills for WSCHS medical staff. As important, LISC provided funds to bring together the organizations' staff with the apartment complex’s Karen, Somali, Iraqi and Bhutanese refugee residents to build new nutrition, exercise and health care programs.

It’s more than just announcing a new program. For instance, clinic staff are developing preventive health supports consistent with the Karen connection to Buddhism, including creating an environment in the exam room for meditation and spiritual activities that is suited to the Karen culture.

“Rolling Hills had a garden and playgrounds, and so the idea was to bring together Lutheran Social Services, West Side Community Health Services’ staff and residents to talk about how to use those spaces for physical activity and socializing, and access to healthy foods,” says Wheeler, who also helped LISC invest in adding two more gardens.

“English is not a common language," she adds, "so all this also helps people get connected and engaged, and that in turn fights off depression and isolation.” 

Health in the Plan in Indianapolis

Like all LISC programs, the Community Health Advocates initiative is designed to be adapted to local needs and capacity.

In Indianapolis, this approach has helped the Mid-North community bring health to the forefront of the neighborhood quality-of-life plan, a community-built document that prioritizes where residents want to see the neighborhood go and strategies for getting there. 

“In the original plan, improving residents’ health ended up as an offshoot of education. There was definite interest, but people in the neighborhood were kind of stumped on how to tackle it—it seemed outside the capacity of the neighborhood to make a difference,” says Sara Van Slambrook, a senior program officer at LISC Indianapolis. “For this process, we brought in resources to really analyze and discuss what can be done locally.”

Fall Creek Gardens in Mid-North is expanding to give residents more opportunities to grow healthy food.

Van Slambrook is the CHA point person on health at LISC in Indianapolis, and the program’s funding has also supported a consultant to gather health and wellness data to present during the quality-of-life plan meetings and facilitate community discussions. 

Today, health and wellness is a key part of the new plan, which is about to be finalized. And more programs that will make Mid-North a healthier place to live are popping up.

Mid-North is connected with citywide efforts to build more community gardens all around Indianapolis, and discussions are underway for an intergenerational playground, designed so kids can play with the neighborhood’s many senior citizens. 

Mid-North leaders are working with the city on how to make local Fall Creek more accessible, adding in elements like a trail to give residents more options for physical activity. The Indy Food Fund, which is supported by LISC Indianapolis, recently provided a local community garden with a grant to expand and add more educational offerings.

IU Health, the area’s largest hospital system, was part of the health planning process and invested in the CHA program locally.

Now IU Health is more involved in the community than ever before, according to Van Slambrook, with projects like Garden on the Go, a mobile fresh food vendor that travels to early childhood centers and other locations in the neighborhood. 

“LISC knew that a lot of groups were interested or already doing health work in Mid-North, that’s why we chose this community for the CHA program,” Van Slambrook says. “We’ve gone from working on health issues sporadically to thinking things through more strategically, seeing how programs and projects work together and how partners like the YMCA and the local hospital can become more involved.”

A Conduit Between National Resources and Local Needs

On the East Side of St. Paul, Mary Wheeler is experiencing similar success.

Twin Cities LISC is helping with an evaluation of how and why healthy food and regular exercise programs at City Academy are factors in the excellent performance of students at the local charter school, for instance.

Through a grant from the St. Paul Foundation, they’re also assisting local agencies and groups in a neighborhood-driven effort for how locally grown food can improve the economy of low-income communities and overall health.

As a CHA, Wheeler also serves as a conduit between national resources and local needs. For example, Gillman called last year with a great opportunity: Newman’s Own Foundation was looking for worthwhile projects to fund that address access to healthy food.

Teens in Urban Roots' nutrition program learning to cook with fresh ingredients.

Wheeler knew just who to suggest: Urban Roots, which runs community gardens and cooking and nutrition classes for thousands of families on the East Side, including an intensive youth internship program.

“We had been hoping to purchase kitchen equipment so we could engage with more residents and expand our work,” says Tamara Downs Schwei, who served as the executive director at Urban Roots for more than six years and now facilitates the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative and local food policy for the City of Minneapolis.

With the Newman’s Own grant, Urban Roots was able to partner with a local church to expand and add equipment to their kitchen. That means more families can participate in Urban Roots classes, the gardens can grow more fresh food (because, with a new walk-in cooler, it now can be stored longer), and the programs can offer more training opportunities in food preparation and marketing.

“When I think of intermediaries and how they can support the community, this is the ideal,” Downs Schwei says. “We were doing really important work, and LISC brought in the resources for us to build even more.”

In addition to their own programs, Urban Roots is now working with the church to include more healthy food at a weekly food shelf for the homeless and poor.

“Mary talks about the idea of leverage a lot, and truly that’s been the case with this,” Downs Schwei says. “It’s all very exciting.”

Posted in Indianapolis, Health & Wellness, Twin Cities

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