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A Place People Call Their Own: Community Partnerships That Foster Community Health

“This is more than a building,” said Evelyn LaRue of Heritage Park Senior Services Campus in North Minneapolis. “This is more than services. This is a place people call their own.” LaRue is director of the campus, which combines a neighborhood health clinic, a YMCA that caters to low-income seniors, adult day services, and the first public housing facility in the nation to offer memory care and enhanced assisted living as part of its housing options. The facility has become a neighborhood hub for healthy living.
LaRue was talking to a delegation of health care leaders from across the U.S. visiting the Twin Cities as part of the 2014 Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference. Heritage Park was one stop on a tour, sponsored by the Twin Cities office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), of innovative community health projects. The goal of the tour was to learn more about the links between community development and the health of low-income people.
LaDonna Pierson bounded across Heritage Park’s comfortable meeting room, which features a tall fireplace and windows overlooking a pond, to tell the group how Heritage Park changed her life. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. She has since lost 40 pounds by working out at the Y.
“I found more than a Y,” shared Pierson, who lives in a nearby public-housing community.  “I found a family. A lot of us do fun things together here. We have Zumba classes with all the new dance line moves. We have tai chi.” Twin Cities LISC, one of 30 local offices of the country’s largest non-profit financer of community development projects, helped finance the $16 million Heritage Park Senior Services Center as part of its focus on low-income communities.
Creating a culture of health
“Your zip code may be more important than your genetic code” in determining health, noted Andriana Abariotes, executive director, Twin Cities LISC at the Healthy Communities Conference, held last month at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The event was sponsored by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, the Healthy Futures Fund, Wilder Research, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twin Cities LISC and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis also sponsored the event.
Dr. Alonzo Plough, the keynote speaker, stated that new research shows as much as 80 percent of our health is related to factors beyond illness—a surprising fact quoted again and again throughout the conference. Plough, who is an epidemiologist and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), also said, “Our focus needs to be on well-being and health, not just illness care.”
RWJF, the nation’s largest philanthropic public health funder with an endowment of $9.2 billion, has dedicated itself to an unprecedented 20-year plan to catalyze “a culture of health.” The plan, Plough says, will “enable all members of our diverse society to lead healthy lives, now and for generations to come.”
This goal drives the foundation’s focus on improving people’s access to nutritious food, affordable housing, affordable health insurance, and economic and educational opportunities. The foundation also works to reverse trends of childhood obesity, and provide mental and emotional support for struggling families.
“We all now know that health is connected to neighborhoods, not just individuals,” noted Amy Gillman, senior program director, LISC’s national office in New York City. “Community development work has always been about health, we just didn’t know it before.”
Dave Kleiber of Capital Link, based in Ferndale, Washington, noted that the U.S. spends $8400 per capita each year on health care, twice the amount of any other country. “There’s a lot of money in health care that could pay for these [social] determinants of health. The money is there.”
East Side partnerships
A key question, of course, is what kind of community development projects best-strengthen people’s health. That was reflected in the theme of this year’s Healthy Communities Conference: Measuring Our Impact.
“Measurement is difficult and time consuming and expensive,” admitted Paul Mattessich, executive director, Wilder Research, St. Paul. Wilder is developing tools to measure success in improving low-income people’s health. “But this knowledge is invaluable.”
To stimulate conference-goers’ thinking with direct experience in the field, Twin Cities LISC whisked them by bus to a number of community health projects on St. Paul’s East Side, a low-income community hit especially hard by the foreclosure crisis.
“The real challenge is how to strengthen the community and keep the assets here—often people move out when they start to make a little more money, which constantly destabilizes neighborhoods,” note Mary Wheeler, LISC’s EastSide community health advocate.
The first visit on the tour was The East Side Family Clinic. The clinic opened in 2013 on the brownfield site of a vacated 3M factory. The new clinic has 74 exam rooms staffed by 8 to 10 physicians, as well as a 20-chair dental clinic, on-site pharmacy, nutrition services, mental health counseling, family planning and prenatal care. Last year 80 percent of people treated didn’t have health insurance.
Next was Rolling Hills, a recently rehabbed ‘70s-era apartment complex. The 108-unit facility includes a new community house offering exercise classes, ESL instruction, cooking classes, yoga classes and a branch of the East Side Family Clinic. There is also a community garden. Residents hail from as far away as Somalia, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Myanmar and Nepal. They get to know one another through the engagement work of “SoLaHmo”, a program of the East Side Family Clinic, where residents meet and share their experiences.
Conference tour participants also heard from community members involved with the East Side Financial Center, which provides financial coaching, employment coaching and information about support services; Urban Roots, which employs neighborhood youth to work at urban farms where they learn about growing food, cooking and wellness; Holistic Health Farms, which utilizes vacant land for a variety of sustainable agriculture and healthy food programs; and Merrick Community Services, which offers a food shelf, meals on wheels, employment services and domestic violence workshops.
A “culture of health” grows from these kinds of partnerships. “Multiple organizations are working together for the East Side. This is happening all over the region and across the country,” noted Abariotes. Cross-sector cooperation can bring new perspectives into view, such as the effects of economic dislocation on people’s health—the chronic stress, depression and isolation felt by low-income and unemployed families.
Community development + healthier communities
The group convened a different day at the Heritage Park Senior Campus for a roundtable discussion about the intersection of community development and healthier communities. Participants heard from Project for Pride in Living, developers of Rising Cedar Apartments, a state-of-the-art residence for adults with mental illness that offers a healing environment and support services.
Other speakers came from Hope Community, a community-based organization engaged in creating an affordable mixed-use development in Minneapolis’ Phillips Neighborhood while also supporting residents in broader community building efforts; and Lyndale Gardens, a Richfield mixed-use redevelopment planned by The Cornerstone Group with a natural food coop, community gardens, farmers’ market, arts programs, living wage jobs and 20-percent affordable housing.
This line-up illustrates the range of organizations undertaking this work: a non-profit community developer, a neighborhood-based organization and a private developer working in a moderate-income suburb.  “Overall, the Minnesota Healthy Communities conference is an invitation to partner,” Abariotes noted. “Community developers are increasingly focused on how our work can improve community health. This year, we had great participation from the health field and they’re interested in partnering with us. That’s a good sign for the future.”
At the closing session, Dave Kleiber of Capital Link, which works with health centers nationally to plan and finance capital projects, declared, “ I am awed by all this. You are already doing the work here. Minnesota is very progressive.”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities.  He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. His website is JayWalljasper.com.
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