Mother, daughter play big roles for their community, OHKCE collaboration

When Rachel Riley heard about the Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside project, she was excited. As president of the East 23rd Street PAC neighborhood association for a dozen years, she has rallied residents “to roll up our sleeves, show our love for each other and take back our community from trash and violence.” 

So, when OHKCE reached out about its program to bring vaccinations, information and other health care services to Eastside neighborhoods, Riley said, “we’re all in.”

“We” meant Riley, who has lost two sons to gun violence and works tirelessly for her neighborhood. “We” included her daughter, Sharlonda Riley, who has been vice president of the neighborhood association going on four years now. 

And “we” included the hundreds of residents who show up several times a year for community cleanup events in the neighborhood association’s large territory, which stretches from Interstate 70 on the west and south, to Van Brunt Boulevard on the east, to Truman Road on the north.  

“I think we had one of the project’s first vaccine events, in July,” Rachel said. “And we had another in August, so people could get their second shots.”

The events, held at East High School in conjunction with cleanup days, have drawn hundreds of people and led to dozens of vaccinations. About 90 people at the first event and more than 100 at the second also filled out health information questionnaires, designed to help the OHKCE project and other research efforts improve health care access and initiatives in the city’s underserved areas.

OHKCE, made possible by $5 million in federal CARES Act money from Jackson County, is partnering with more than 60 community organization such as the East 23rd Street PAC to provide vaccinations and health screenings, and to provide information to promote healthier living. 

From working to reduce homicides and gun violence to cleaning up trash and removing or rehabbing vacant buildings, the East 23rd Street PAC has championed many efforts to improve its neighborhoods. The group doesn’t often get outside help, Rachel said, so contact from OHKCE was “wonderful.”

For the Riley family, working with their neighborhood association has long been a family affair. For OHKCE, Sharlonda stepped up to be a project Community Health Liaison, the person who keeps a neighborhood association in good touch with OHKCE. Her grandmother, Joyce Riley, led the neighborhood association for several years before Rachel took over.

“It’s very much a part of our family,” Sharlonda said. “I’ve been involved since I was 14.” That was when she lost her brother, Larry Riley, in a gun homicide. She also has lost a cousin and, in January 2021, another brother, John Riley, was killed.

Despite and because of those personal losses, the Rileys keep going to help their neighbors.

“You learn to make a way when there’s no way,” said Sharlonda, who in 2018 purchased and rehabbed a condemned house so it could be used as a daycare center. And her neighborhood association has bought and revamped a building that soon will be its headquarters. “It will be a place we all can call home,” Rachel said.

And now, through partnering with UMKC, University Health (formerly Truman Medical Center) and others that are part of Our Healthy KC Eastside, the Riley’s are staying true to their mission of improving the neighborhood they call home. According to Rachel, “it helps us tell everyone what it means to be healthy and safe, every day.”

Health sciences graduate ready to make a difference in public health

Denise Dean has big plans, and her UMKC research experience and bachelor of health sciences degree are helping her realize them.

“My ultimate goal is to work for the United Nations and work towards health equity on a global and national scale,” said Dean, who graduated in May with a minor in public health as well. She is working on two public health grants in Kansas City through calendar 2021. “That’s something I’m really passionate about.”

To pursue her dream job, Dean will need a master’s degree in public health and, eventually, a doctorate in a health field. With all of her undergraduate research experience and work in public health, Dean is confident that she will be accepted at one of her preferred graduate programs for 2022.

“I had a lot of opportunities to work in the field when I graduated,” she said, “but I’m eager to start work on my master’s.”

Dean currently is a public health research assistant at the School of Nursing and Health Studies, a post she held for several semesters while getting her BHS degree. And she is the youth sector research coordinator for Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside, which has partnered with youth groups, neighborhood associations, churches and businesses to provide COVID-19 vaccinations and preventive health screenings.

“I’m working with about 15 youth groups in underserved areas,” she said, training them to become Community Health Liaisons in order to share accurate health information. She also works with Move More, Get More, an after-school initiative that increases access to nutrition and sports in three Kansas City middle schools.

While earning her BHS degree, Dean also studied global health inequities and challenges, COVID-19, HIV and other public health issues. In a course on the pandemic, for example, one of the first in the country, Dean became a certified contact tracer and learned much about medical equipment supply chains and emergency response systems.

Her research assistantship allowed her to work with Joey Lightner, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Amanda Grimes, Ph.D., M.C.H.E.S., both assistant professors. Dean’s work in their public health programs resulted in her being the lead author on one peer-reviewed research article and a contributor on another, and reviewer for the 2021 National Reproductive Conference. She also got to help Lightner, a member of the city’s health board, draw up the city’s Community Health Improvement Plan, which put her in touch with experts in many areas of public health.

Teeing Up for Community Health

Chris Harris applies his neighborhood advocacy to advance COVID-19 vaccination rates

Chris Harris is well-known for his efforts to elevate and energize the Ivanhoe neighborhood on the eastside of Kansas City. More than twenty years ago, Harris bought an entire block on Wayne Avenue, where he grew up, and turned it into a five-hole golf course. Today, in addition to the golf course, there is a new park and new houses on the street. Recently, Harris began applying his energy to providing opportunities in the neighborhood for people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“When this neighborhood was becoming blighted, I felt as we – the people living here –  were becoming blighted,” Harris says. “When I started cleaning things up to make way for the golf course, you could feel it starting to change the way people thought about the neighborhood. You could see it. We were changing the mindset of people inside and outside the neighborhood.”

This experience of making change from the inside by doing something positive made Harris believe that anything is possible. Now he is leveraging the community he’s helped renew through the golf course to provide opportunities for people to become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

“I want to help make the vaccine available for anyone who wants it,” he says. “I don’t want people to be able to say, ‘I don’t know where to go,’ or ‘All the locations are too far from the neighborhood.’ I want to help do everything we can to bring people here to get vaccinated or get more information.”

Harris says he understands that people have their own perceptions of the vaccine. He is not interested in pressuring people. As he’s done with developing the golf course, he is interested in showing people there may be another way to approach a challenging situation.

“Even if someone isn’t ready to get vaccinated, these events give us the opportunity to get in front of people and educate them. At the last event we talked to people and they asked us a lot of questions and told us what they’d heard and why they’re hesitant. They may not have gotten vaccinated that day, but they might come back. And they might get vaccinated the next time.”

Harris acknowledges that there is a lot of mistrust in the community around the vaccine. “It takes time to gain trust,” Harris says. “So, we’ll just keep knocking at the door. We’re going to continue to make things better for the area.”

County Executive played key role in launching OHKCE

Frank White was persuasive advocate for vaccinations and health screenings

The Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside program has spread across traditionally underserved areas in Kansas City, bringing COVID-19 vaccinations and a range of preventive health screenings to residents who often don’t have easy access to such services.

As the $5 million program reaches more and more residents, it’s good to recall that it started with an idea in the office of Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr., who grew up on the Eastside.

“My staff and I talked about being able to provide assistance for folks who are really affected by COVID-19,” White said. “From the onset, it was the Eastside of Kansas City, Black residents who were the first to contract COVID, the first to go to the hospital and the first to die from this dreaded disease.”

Given evidence of vaccine hesitancy, and the need for better access to health screenings for conditions such as diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure, White envisioned a comprehensive program that could really make an impact on the Eastside. To make that happen, he said, it made sense to partner with UMKC and its affiliates such as University Health (formerly Truman Medical Centers) and Children’s Mercy.

“We had an awareness of Dr. Jannette Berkley-Patton’s work with the Health Equity Institute,” White said, referring to a chancellor’s initiative that pairs UMKC researchers with community groups to develop sustainable programs that address gaps in health care access and outcomes. Those efforts led by Berkley-Patton, a UMKC professor of biomedical and health informatics, recently included COVID testing financed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“And we had conversations with Chancellor [C. Mauli] Agrawal, who had offered to provide any assistance the university could to ensure the safety and health of our community,” White said.

The plan for OHKCE was drawn up, using money the county received  from the federal CARES Act, and White went to work reassuring the nine members of the Jackson County Legislature that it was a good idea.

“This is a unique project for the county,” White said. “We had never invested this amount of money in a program specifically designed to address health care inequities and disparities in our urban communities. It was only natural the legislators would have a lot of questions.”

In the end the questions were answered, and the legislators unanimously approved OHKCE.

“That became an exciting day for me and an exciting day for Jackson County,” White said. “I was tired of hearing of the health disparities affecting the minority community, of lower life expectancies in some ZIP codes, and seeing family and friends deal with the disparities. I said it’s time to do something.”

White also wanted the effort to include preventive screenings along with the vaccines, and held out hope of making access to better preventive care a lasting part of life on the Eastside. Such screenings have a personal spot in White’s heart.

“I lost both of my parents to colon cancer,” said White, who wonders whether things could have been different with better screenings. “They had good health care coverage, but back then you didn’t go to the doctor until something was wrong,” White said, so their cancers were not discovered until they were quite advanced.

“That’s why I’m really excited about this program giving people the opportunity to take some preventive measures and give them a better heads up than what my parents had,” he said. “I’m grateful that UMKC and University Health have partnered with us in this program,” White added, “and for the different community partners who have really gone out and got on board to put this program out into the community.”

Business Leaders in Urban Core Support Healthy Kansas City Eastside

Co-founder of The Porter House KC, Daniel Smith, among
those hosting COVID vaccination events

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

Daniel Smith, co-founder and principal of The Porter House KC, a co-working community that provides resources for business creation to underserved communities in Kansas City, is dedicated to building a healthy and thriving urban core.

Light from his storefront windows flood his space near 18th and Vine as he explains why he is part of Our Healthy KC Eastside, and the importance of Kansas City’s communities becoming vaccinated against COVID-19. UMKC’s Jannette Berkley Patton, Ph.D., who is heading the project, approached Smith to convene business leaders in the community to see if they would support the endeavor.

“It’s not unusual to see the church communities and neighborhoods involved in community health projects like this, but as business leaders we felt it was important to do what we could to support vaccination efforts in the neighborhood,” Smith says.

Once Smith agreed to be involved, he began to have conversations with fellow business owners.

“Business owners are used to people approaching them for financial support, but this was different,” Smith says. “We just wanted to talk about whether or not they agreed with the need and necessity of vaccination education. From there, we began to talk about spreading the word and hosting events.”

Smith met with the Heartland Black Chamber and other area businesses.

“They all said, ‘Yes.’ They agreed it was needed and necessary and that we could count on their support.”

 Smith says it’s been a whirlwind since then. OHKCE produced T-shirts and stickers that are to be made available at events that business owners are hosting. In addition to providing vaccines, business sector OHKCE community health liaisons are having conversations with their customers and clients to clear up COVID misconceptions.

“This project is so important – especially with the Delta variant. We don’t want to shame people. We think it’s more effective to provide accurate information.”

Smith says the goal is to help inform people and provide a space for those in the community to get vaccinated. He does understand that volume is key.

“We are providing incentives to encourage people. Some businesses are giving out gift cards. We are doing a $500 raffle at some of our pop-ups. Chris Evans at T-shirt King produced shirts for us. We find that the incentives work,” Smith says.

There is a personal side to his efforts, too. Smith’s wife is an elementary school principal, and he has three teenaged children.

“It’s instinct to take care of your family. That’s our ecosystem. We protect the people in our house, and then the people around us.

Smith says this is how it translates to what is being done in the community.

“It’s just a bigger ecosystem. Keeping everyone safe is not possible if we don’t all work together.”