Eastside COVID Initiative Includes Youth Ambassadors

Employment program for underserved youth helps to drive vaccinations

Our Healthy KC Eastside (OHKCE) is a large-scale, community-based partnership addressing access to COVID-19 vaccines and health inequities in vulnerable areas of Jackson County, Mo. Meet the community partners who are dedicated to improving Jackson County’s residents’ lives.

Youth Ambassadors has a successful history bringing positive change to the lives of teenagers in underserved neighborhoods in Kansas City. In addition to a year-round employment program, its summer program provides youth with opportunities to explore experiential learning and leadership. Based on its history, Youth Ambassadors has the opportunity to leverage relationships with its participants to drive COVID-19 vaccination.

Monique Johnston, executive director, enthusiastically supports Youth Ambassador’s role in fighting misinformation around the vaccine and encouraging vaccination.

“The pandemic has highlighted not only the health inequities in our city, state or country, but also how closely linked those health inequities are to socioeconomic status, and particularly race and income.”

Thus far, Youth Ambassadors recruited ten local youth organizations as well as individual teams to spread accurate information about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. In addition, the organization will train youth leaders who will share the information among their peers.

“We’re using a peer-to-peer education model where teens spread targeted messaging in person and online to combat the misinformation and the conspiracy theories that exist. We’ve used this approach in an anti-violence program. In that program, one of those posts went viral and had 75,000 engagements using social media. We’re hoping for that kind of influence.”

Youth Ambassadors polled its 175 summer program participants on their vaccination interest or status.

“Forty percent of our kids said they wanted to get vaccinated but had not,” Johnston says. “The rest said they weren’t vaccinated and were not interested. They said they were young and healthy, and they could fight the virus if they caught it.”

She recognizes that this demographic can feel invincible.

“They can run a mile and not feel any pain, so they think they can fight off a cough. But now we’re seeing an increase of reports of younger people who are hospitalized with the rise of the Delta variant.”

Johnston thinks targeted social media messaging can be powerful in dispelling vaccine myths and turn the tide in getting accurate information to more people.

“There’s been a long history of mistrust of the medical community within the Black community. We think getting trusted information from your social circle will be a successful strategy for getting people vaccinated,” Johnston says.

Youth Ambassadors is hosting a vaccination event on September 25, with a follow up for the second dose three weeks later. Vaccine recipients will receive $50 for the first vaccination and $50 to take a survey to share their perceptions about the vaccine.

“We’re hoping these financial incentives will mobilize people to get vaccinated,” Johnston says. “For some families in the urban core, that will cover the electricity bill or a trip to the grocery store.” 

Besides financial incentives, Johnston hopes some of the existing cultural nuances in the Black community will be to their advantage when it comes to vaccination.

“People of color are more likely to live in multi-generational households and have tight social circles,” she says. “Some people are already setting firm boundaries about not interacting with people who are unvaccinated. But I’m also seeing more hand-holding as people offer to help friends and family make appointments and maybe drive them to get the vaccine.”

Johnston is hoping that teens who are vaccinated will be able to infiltrate the social circle for the family and crack the code to further acceptance.

“We’d love to have teens show up for the $100, but also bring his uncle, who will then tell his mom,” Johnston says.

Through efforts of the fifteen youth organizations participating in the project, Johnston is hoping to vaccinate 1,250 people.

“I grew up on 53rd and Michigan,” Johnston says. I’m a kid of that neighborhood. I lived on the Eastside almost my whole life. Some of the trauma that our kids experience is linked to poverty and economic disenfranchisement.  Unfortunately, the pandemic added another layer of stressors for people of color in the targeted zip codes.”

Johnson credits her predecessor, Teesha Miller, for getting Youth Ambassadors involved in this this project. “I felt it was our duty to participate. We don’t know what fall will look like. I just hope we crack the code and help people get vaccinated.”

Minister of Health

Kansas City Eastside minster supports urban core with COVID-19 information

“Our Healthy KC Eastside” (OHKCE) is a large-scale, community-based partnership addressing vaccine hesitance and health inequities in vulnerable portions of Jackson County, Missouri. Meet the community partners who are dedicated to improving Jackson County’s residents’ lives.

In the late 1980s, Eric D. Williams, pastor of Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, fought a long, but worthwhile battle educating his community on AIDS awareness and prevention – both from his pulpit and in his neighborhood. Today, he continues his crusade for good health through the Our Healthy KC Eastside initiative to fight COVID-19.

COVID-19 is not the first health crisis Williams has sought to defeat.

“As a young minister in the late 1980’s I had a great relationship with some of the funeral homes, because of my efforts to help with the gang problem in Kansas City. One of the funeral home directors called me one day and asked me to do a service for a young man whose clergyman refused because he died of AIDS.”

Williams says there are elements and misinformation of the AIDS crisis that remind him of the current health crisis.

“The information wasn’t in a central place,” he remembers. “And then there were contradictions. As the community came together, [UMKC professor] Jeanette Berkley-Patton became involved and she took it upon herself to prove that what preachers say at the pulpit, people listen to.”

Williams, Berkley-Patton and their colleagues developed church-based AIDS education and prevention programming to reach the African-American community. They delivered their message through sermons from the pulpit and printed information in the church program of services. And the church leaders led by example, though sermons, public testing demonstrations and caring for people living with HIV.

“That’s our ministry. That’s our focus. That’s our heartbeat,” Williams says.  “We want to help do the same thing with COVID-19 because all of our congregations are hurting. We want to use what we’ve learned to help.”

Williams is leading the faith sector of Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside in an effort to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations. He thinks his colleagues’ reach and influence are significant.

“We have 15 churches on the east side that have signed up and are ready to host vaccination events. We have a waiting list of about six or eight more congregations that would like to participate. I think we can continue to keep them engaged so that they can influence people.  Their average congregation size is from a hundred to a couple of thousand.”

Williams thinks even if vaccination numbers are low at the one event, there may still be positive results.

“If we can continue to influence people from the strong stance of the pulpit, I think that can be significant. It’s like planting seeds. Even if you don’t get the shot in the arm that day, you’ve planted the thought in the minds of the folks that listen to you. Maybe in the future, they’ll make the choice.”

Williams notes that African Americans face health challenges across the board that COVID is compounding.

“We are leading all the wrong lists,” he says. “We top new infections with HIV, the most people living with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, mental illness, and on and on. And so, we are using those same lessons we learned with HIV to tackle the other health disparities that we see, through our strong relationships with our congregations.”

Williams has experience fighting the distrust that many people in the African-American community have for the medical profession.

“I think the first thing that helps is that we agree that yes, there have been abuses and that some of the conspiracies are real. [The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at] Tuskegee did happen. There was a General Hospital Number One [for white people in Kansas City], and a General Hospital Number Two for African Americans. There were cemeteries that wouldn’t allow black people to be buried there. So that is real.”

Williams says we can acknowledge that, “but look past history to see what’s happening right now. Week by week we see more deaths.”

He knows that some of the partner churches may handle things differently, but the general structure is delivery of fact-based information.

“We asked the preachers to deliver a sermon with some facts about COVID and vaccination. Facts, not opinions, and relate it to scripture and how Jesus may handle it.”

According to Williams, his go-to passage is 3 John 1:2: Beloved, I wish above all things that you prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.

“I think sometimes we get fixated on the soul and neglect the person and what they’re going through today,” he says. “Our desire is that people’s lives on Earth are as prosperous and happy as their afterlife.”