Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside Receives $5 million for Community Health Initiative

The Jackson County legislature approved $5 million to continue community health initiatives through Our Healthy Eastside Kansas City, based on the success of the coalition’s impact on COVID-19 and community health from its original funding in 2021.

Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D., professor in the UMKC School of Medicine and director of the university’s Health Equity Institute, is leading the project. The funding will expand COVID-19 vaccinations, health screenings, reproductive services to address infant mortality and successful diabetes prevention programs in Kansas City’s Eastside. This funding is a continuation of the program’s initial $5 million grant.

Our Healthy KC Eastside is a community-wide initiative that promotes and delivers widespread COVID-19 vaccinations and other health services to residents on the east side of Kansas City. More than 60 community organizations and health agencies are partnering with OHKCE to support healthy lifestyles through vaccine events and health screenings such as blood pressure checks, diabetes screenings and dental education. OHKCE health agency partners include the UMKC schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Pharmacy and Nursing and Health Sciences, Children’s Mercy Hospital and University Health.

As part of the OHKCE initiative, more than 3,000 Kansas City residents completed surveys on their health beliefs, which showed that indifference or fear was not always behind low vaccination rates. Often, transportation or access to health care were factors. Providing health care delivery in community hubs on weekends and evenings provided better availability.

“This is a significant advance in assuring accessible and preventative health services are available to Jackson County residents,” Berkley-Patton says. “Our success with Our Healthy Eastside Kansas City is evidence that working collaboratively with community and health partners can greatly increase the reach of health care in the most underserved neighborhoods and have a positive impact on our entire community.”

“As a provider of community health and regional health education, UMKC recognizes the significance of this funding on our community,” UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal says. “We thank the Jackson County Legislature for their leadership on this issue, and congratulate Dr. Berkley Patton on her dedication to high quality healthcare delivery to every citizen of Jackson County.”

Healthy KC Eastside Reports Success

Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside, a community health collaborative created to address COVID-19 in underserved neighborhoods, administered more than 11,000 vaccinations in Kansas City neighborhoods with high health care disparity. The collaborative’s leaders reported the initiative’s success at their community forum January 26 at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Carole Bowe Thompson, project director, UMKC Health Equity Institute, opened the program by thanking the community leaders who mobilized staff and secured funding.

“We will be celebrating these accomplishments for years to come,” Bowe Thompson said. “You’ll never know how many lives you saved.”

“When we come together it makes a big difference,” “It can’t be done alone.”

– Eric Williams

In recorded remarks, county executive Frank White Jr. reminded the group that the project brought together 60 community organizations and more than 120 community members for COVID-19 outreach, education and vaccination, as well as access to other preventative health services.  

“We all want the best for our children, and to be healthy for as long as possible,” White said. “That is why it hurts me so much to know that members of my community face very different realities based purely on where they live. A child born in a 64128 zip code on the east side of Kansas City has a life expectancy nearly 20 years shorter than a child born in the 64113 zip code, less than one mile away. I am that child.”

In addition, community healthcare workers and volunteers completed hundreds of sexually transmitted disease tests, nearly 250 dental exams and more than 300 dental referrals, as well as collecting data from 3,000 health surveys.

White announced that Jackson County will extend the initiative.

“Together we are saving lives,” White said. “And we just getting started.”

Jackson County plans to invest an additional $2 million over three years to utilize the research gathered during the project to provide ongoing resources to the community to address healthcare disparities.

“Public health is a vital resource to the safety and wellness of our community,” White said. “And we all have a role to play.”

UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal underscored the university’s role in conducing valuable research.

“More than 3000 Kansas City residents completed surveys on their health beliefs, which showed that indifference or fear was not always behind low vaccination rates. The information collected from our research further highlights the importance of increasing access to vaccinations in trusted settings.”

The ten research studies that resulted from this initiative continue to provide new and reliable data on COVID-19 and related issues, including its impact on physical activity, “long COVID” cases and mental health. In addition, the work has provided opportunities for hundreds of students and faculty to be involved in vaccinations and treatment, making lasting connections in the community.

Charlie Shields, University Health president and CEO, noted the significance of the hospital’s long term relationship with UMKC and how the extensive partnership with the schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and health sciences and pharmacy were instrumental in providing vaccines.

“It was a matter of everybody working together in a boots on the ground initiative, getting those vaccines out there, getting people access,” Shields says. “It has made a true difference in how Kansas City is responding to this, and particularly in underserved communities and parts of our community.”

Reverend Eric Williams’s work in the faith sector was instrumental to the project’s success.

Williams, Calvary Community Outreach Network executive director and faith sector lead, noted that the OHKCE project was effective at relieving silos, generating a closeness in communities and eliminating disparities. “When we come together it makes a big difference,” Williams said. “It can’t be done alone.”

What Actually Works to Get People Vaccinated

Statistics show that nearly 40 million adults remain unvaccinated for COVID. The issue isn’t a lack of vaccines. In areas of the country such as Kansas City’s eastside, a section of neighborhoods among the city’s most socially vulnerable, it’s a matter of awareness and meeting the community where it’s at.

Backed by nearly $5 million in CARES Act funding through the Jackson County Legislature, Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D., professor of biomedical and health informatics and director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Health Equity Institute, took up the challenge to bring the message as well as the needed vaccines to Kansas City communities with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.

A published article on Slate, a daily web magazine and podcast network, chronicles Berkley-Patton’s efforts to launch Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside, a program that has nearly doubled the original goal of vaccinating 5,000 people. Visit the web site here to read the full story.

UMKC School of Dentistry Furthers COVID-19 Vaccinations

Faculty and students incorporate vaccination opportunities into clinics, including OHKCE

In the beginning of 2021, faculty from the Department of Dental Public Health at UMKC School of Dentistry responded to a call from the executive director of KC Care Health Center to help administer COVID-19 vaccines.

“Wil Franklin contacted us and said, ‘Dentists have the knowledge and skills, and we need help. Would you consider being trained and working with our medical director to help us with vaccination efforts,’” Meghan Wendland, DDS, MPH, assistant professor UMKC School of Dentistry, said. “Our immediate response was, ‘absolutely.’ We started vaccinating at KC Care then.”


Meghan Wendland and Melanie Simmer-Beck

Once the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act in March of 2021, dentists and dental students were authorized to vaccinate against COVID-19 in all 50 states.

“Then we got involved on a much larger scale,” Wendland said. They also got involved with the Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside initiative, providing COVID vaccines and dental health screenings at various OHKCE events.

Melanie Simmer-Beck, Ph.D., RDH, professor and chair of Dental Public Health and Behavioral Science at the UMKC School of Dentistry, said that not only was this a great opportunity to help the community, but the school’s students also benefitted because it came at a time when many educational activities had to be cancelled because of COVID-19.

“We worked with the administration, who responded with their support, and then moved forward to train dental students,” Simmer-Beck said. “Our community partners did not hesitate to have our students getting shots in arms.”

Wendland said she contacted her colleagues in the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies, which Wendland already worked with in interprofessional education, to help train her third-year dental students in vaccination procedures.

“They had the facilities and faculty in place to help, and they immediately agreed to set up a full week where they closed their simulation course rooms, recruited faculty and trained all 107 dental students. They are awesome partners.”

The partnership expanded to the School of Pharmacy, which resulted in training for an additional 63 students.

Simmer-Beck notes that there is a national trend toward integrating oral health into primary care, which has support from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute.

“I think some of the students may have been a little out of their comfort zone,” Simmer-Beck said. “But it exposed them to what their practice may look like. Within 30-40 years practicing as dentists, I think community health will be widely accepted in the scope of practice.”

The UMKC School of Dentistry has continued success offering vaccinations at their dental clinic.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised how many people are willing to get vaccinated in our dental clinic,” Wendland said. “We have quite a few patients who have been willing to get their entire series here.”

She said even more patients have been interested in getting their boosters at the clinic.

“Patients are catching on quickly that if their dentist can give them a shot in their mouth, they can give them a shot in their arm.”

An Entrepreneurial Approach to COVID-19 Vaccination

Maria Meyers has been connecting community resources for more than 18 years

Maria Meyers is executive director, UMKC Innovation Center, and the founder of SourceLink, an organization providing research and development for entrepreneurial communities. She is also serving as one of the Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside co-chairs mobilizing Kansas City’s business community to provide COVID-19 vaccinations.

Her efforts also include providing accurate information on the virus and other basic health services to residents often underserved in health care initiatives. She is working with Daniel Smith, OHKCE business sector co-chair and founder of The Porter House KC, a group developing underserved communities, one business at a time. Together, Meyers and Smith have been recruiting businesses to provide pop-up COVID clinics.

“From the beginning, we spent some time thinking about how we were going to promote this vaccination effort,” Meyers said. “We created merchandise – hats, t-shirts, stickers – that say, ‘Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside’ to help spread the word.”

When the initiative launched, Meyers saw some vaccine hesitancy and the group spent a lot of time on sharing accurate information.

“At our first event, we talked to a lot of people, but our vaccination rate wasn’t very high,” she said. “Now there’s a big difference. We’re up to more than 50 vaccinations at the events and that’s very satisfying.”

Meyers said meeting people where they are has been key to the initiative’s success.

“We needed to be in people’s neighborhoods,” she said. “It was interesting to watch people come out of their homes and apartment buildings to come to the pop-up clinics.”

Meyers doesn’t think their success was entirely due to convenience.

“It was convenient, but there was also time to really sit and talk to people individually about the questions that they had about the vaccine and other medical issues. After talking to someone working at the clinic, that person might say, ‘I’m going to go tell my neighbor to come.’ There was a lot of good word-of-mouth communication.”

Meyers hopes this ongoing trust building and providing health care in neighborhoods will lead to more services and stronger community relationships in the future.

“Thanks to Jeannette Berkley-Patton’s leadership, we were able to bring different groups together – neighborhood associations, businesses, youth groups and churches – and mobilize very quickly,” Meyers said. “And that’s a good lesson for community leaders who might be working toward the same thing, but maybe not collaborating in the same way.  It was pretty amazing to watch.”

UMKC Medical Student Builds Trust and Experience

As a first-generation college student, Demi Elrod knew she wanted to be a doctor so she could help people.

Since entering UMKC’s medical school as a second-year student in the six-year B.A/M.D. program, Elrod has discovered an interest in infectious disease and microbiology. So, the decision to volunteer as a vaccinator for Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside was an easy one. The  community-wide initiative promotes and delivers COVID-19 vaccinations and other health services to residents on the east side of Kansas City.

“Since the pandemic began, I have learned a lot about COVID-19 and the vaccine in my classes and during my experiences as a volunteer vaccinator,” Elrod said. “These experiences and lessons have shown me how interesting infectious disease is and how I can serve my community to aid in the pandemic.”

Since August, Elrod has served her community through OHKCE. In addition to providing COVID vaccines and information, the events offer services such as pre-diabetic and blood pressure screenings.

While she hasn’t heard much COVID misinformation, when she does, she takes the time to talk people through their concerns.

“I understand hesitancy,” she said. “People in my family are divided and I just encourage them to talk to their health care provider. There is great information about the vaccine available through trusted sources. Also, I remind them that being vaccinated protects not only you, but also the immunocompromised people around you. Even in my family, I am trying to be a bridge.”

Elrod said she’s also seen people at events who said they don’t want to get vaccinated but are there to observe.

“After a while, even though they said they didn’t want a vaccine, they’re sitting in the chair across from me. They thank me for being there and I say, ‘No, thank you.’ It shows how the medical community can take time to make people comfortable and build a bridge of trust.”

And she thinks having events in the communities where people live make a difference.

“Most people tell me they haven’t gotten vaccinated because available vaccines were too far away, or they’ve had trouble taking the time off to get them. Being in the community has been a great help. The events are really fun and lively with lots of people, music and laughter that come with the education.”

Elrod said working with OHKCE has been an unforgettable experience that’s helped solidify her choice to practice medicine.

“It’s shown me a lot about how important medicine is and how important it is to bridge the gap between community and medical services. The message of OHEKC is, ‘You don’t have to come to us – we can come to you to help.’ Getting that message out builds trust between the community and health care providers.”

Leaders in Health Care Team Up to Fight COVID-19 Spread

Pam Bean and Cameron Lindsey

For the Our Healthy KC Eastside initiative, it truly takes a village.

The effort, designed to fight the spread of COVID-19 and bring access to health services in underserved communities, is being led by the University of Missouri-Kansas City and University Health. Together, these institutions work to educate, test and vaccinate citizens of Eastern Jackson County, Missouri. To make this possible requires numerous staff and student volunteers.

And helping to coordinate them are University Health’s Pam Bean and UMKC’s Cameron Lindsey.

“University Health is a leader in community health,” said Bean, associate administrator, ambulatory care at University Health. “We are the city’s hospital, so it was a natural fit to be part of this effort, to address misinformation and to advocate for and provide vaccinations”

Bean helps coordinate the staffing and operations at University Health’s walk-in COVID vaccination clinic, which is open Monday through Friday. She says based on the health system’s well-trained staff and connections, Jackson County reached out to the organization to come to the forefront of the race to slow the pandemic by providing information, COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“We had robust practices in place,” Bean says. “We were able to pull from existing staff and focus on outreach.”

Lindsey serves as Pharm.D. and chair of the division of pharmacy practice and administration at the UMKC School of Pharmacy. Her work involves identifying existing UMKC health sciences faculty, staff and students who can provide stop gap measures to meet the demand for vaccinations and health screenings, and provide accurate information.

She has been involved in health care for vulnerable populations throughout her career. She became authorized to provide vaccines at UMKC and worked to operate weekly clinics beginning last winter. In addition, Lindsey secured close to $9 million in donated medications for the Shared Care Free Health Clinic. She also worked with Russell Melchert, dean of the UMKC school of pharmacy, and faculty at the School of Dentistry to provide additional services related to COVID, as well as dental, blood pressure, and diabetes screenings at the OHKCE events.

COVID has become personal for many people throughout Kansas City. Lindsey has lost both friends and family members to the virus. She says these events provide residents with valuable and accurate information on the disease. Even though not everyone will choose to receive a vaccination at an event, the clinics entice them to think about it. And many do get their vaccines.

“We have been able to raise vaccination rates, decrease hospitalizations and increase care for people with other chronic illnesses,” Lindsey said. “This initiative has provided an avenue for good, accurate messaging to help us build trust and help our clients feel comfortable. Ultimately, that helps people make the decision to get vaccinated despite their misgivings.”

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.