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Making Health Happen: Education, Collaboration and Empowerment

By Dr. Kohar Jones
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This summer I had the privilege to work with the Summer Service Partnership, a nine week service learning program sponsored by the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Department of Family Medicine and the Urban Health Initiative. Four medical students from the Pritzker School of Medicine partnered with three college students from the University of Chicago to lead teams of students from high schools in three partnered South Side neighborhoods—South Chicago, Woodlawn, and Greater Grand Crossing.

The students learned about community health issues in lectures and field trips, connected with community organizations, and chose dedicated projects to support identified community health needs.  They learned about community health, and reminded me about the power we have to shape our world for the better.

Each neighborhood had its own character. A high school student from Woodlawn Charter School described her neighborhood, just blocks from the medical center, as “vacant.”  Empty lots, empty of hope, until Team Woodlawn explored the community resources they could find on the UHI sponsored page southsidehealth.org, and identified a food pantry and community gardens, and Project Brotherhood where free haircuts entice men to a health center for group health education.  In empty lots, alongside the weeds, they found hope growing.   

Team Woodlawn focused on stress relief through exercise, creating a home exercise video of how to create a hard core home workout using what you have around the home—tomato cans for weights, stairs for running, chairs for support.  Safe effective exercise in your home. 

The predominantly African American neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing pairs used needles on the sidewalk with the Theaster Gates home, an ode to African American art.  It has a fantastic resource in the Gary Comer Youth Center, whose distinctive architecture and wonderful energy define the corner of 71st and Chicago.   Gary Comer College Prep is attached by a walkway, with a school based health center inside.

Team Greater Grand Crossing identified abuse as their topic. They created a series of videos on abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual—with resources for help.  They also created a patient pamphlet with information on local resources, and distributed it to local health care providers.  In addition, they chose to raise awareness within their high school community of the full set of resources, including social work, offered in their school based health center.

The neighborhood of South Chicago is about half and half African American and Latino.  Just under 50,000 people live there, and many residents choose to hang out on their front porches throughout the day, creating a de facto community block watch.  Gang activity upticks in the afternoons, but there are vibrant community resources, from La Causa summer camp for kids, to community gardens, to the Chicago Family Health Center.

Team South Chicago focused on obesity—teaching nutrition classes for elementary school children in summer camp, advocating for a school kitchen to create healthy school lunches, and creating a community garden on the grounds of Epic Academy, their high school. 

One high school student, Keisha Liddell, published an op/ed in the Chicago Sun-Times about the barriers she faced to healthy living.

At the end of the summer, the students reflected on what their neighborhoods needed to be healthier. 

They agreed they needed:

  • Grocery stores and community gardens so people living in food deserts have easier access to fruits and vegetables—perhaps with government grants to support green grocers.
  • Safe places to exercise.
  • Improved community policing.
  • More banks. More jobs.
  • Health education was key, they agreed, on how to cook right and eat well and the importance of exercise, and where to go for health care and social services.
  • Changing incentives to pay people to stay well—one medical student imagined hiding behind bushes and jumping out to surprise joggers with a $20 bill. Surprise! Here’s your money for being well.
  • They also wanted more dialogue between different community leaders and organizations.  Community health, they recognized, was dependent on a complex web of factors that required collaboration among different sectors.
  • Continuing funding to programs to help the poor.
  • And doing it all with humanity.

Interestingly, the high school students agreed that it was important to raise the community’s awareness of its own power.  They imagined leaving posters at bus stops saying “want a playground? Go talk to your alderman.”  They promised to share by word of mouth their newfound awareness of their own power to make their communities healthier, talking to their peers to say—we know what our neighborhood needs to be healthier—let’s go make it happen!

A lesson they took home from the summer: get to know your elected officials, make your voice heard, and find the support you need to make your envisioned projects a reality.

Community health grows with committed individuals of all ages who identify the resources they need to promote health, and trust their power to change the world for the better. Working across sectors with adequate resources we can promote community health and prevent disease to create a healthier America.

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