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.”

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.”

Event helps Eastside residents get vaccinated

Concern for their families motivated several Eastside residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on Aug. 21 at a neighborhood event, billed as the Neighborhood Vaccination and Health Check.

Having the event at midday on a Saturday, and at an Eastside Kansas City location, made the shots more accessible, some of those getting vaccinated said. Clear explanations of how the vaccines work and what to expect from the shots also helped ease residents’ concerns.

One of the first people to get vaccinated was Nicolas Alvarez, who works for the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council maintaining its properties.

“I’ve been meaning to get vaccinated, and this was the perfect opportunity,” he said. “I live with my parents, and I didn’t want them to get COVID.”

He was joined in getting vaccinated by his girlfriend and his younger brother. “And there’s another event like this Sept. 11, where we can get our second shots,” Alvarez said.

Throughout the day, several people from the area joined him in getting vaccinated or being tested for COVID-19, and being screened for other health issues including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Because of its large parking area, the Ivanhoe Council played host to the event, in collaboration with the Our Healthy KC Eastside project. The Santa Fe Area Council, the Key Coalition and the Boston Heights and Mount Hope Neighborhood Association also took part.

The event was staffed in part by UMKC students from the health sciences district, many of whom have been trained to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

Their ability to answer questions about the vaccine eased 18-year-old Marcus Martin’s decision to get his first shot. “They explained everything,” Martin said, “which helped because I was a little nervous.”

Concern for his family was also a big motivator, said Martin, who came to the event with his mother and sister.

“Everybody else at home is vaccinated now,” he said, “and I didn’t want to possibly hurt them.”

Our Healthy KC Eastside is partnering with neighborhood associations, churches, businesses and youth organizations and will be holding several more vaccine and preventive health care events through November. The project came about when Jackson County granted $5 million of its federal CARES Act COVID-fighting money to UMKC to promote vaccinations and other health services.

Our Healthy KC Eastside is led by Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D., a UMKC professor who also heads the UMKC Health Equity Institute and Community Health Research Group.

Vaccine event brings neighborhoods together to promote public health

Residents from four Kansas City neighborhood associations gathered Aug. 21 at a midday event making COVID-19 vaccines and other health resources available to their communities.

The event accomplished its primary purpose — to get more residents vaccinated, from 12-year-olds to senior citizens. And it offered several other health services, including screening for high blood pressure and diabetes and opportunities to get linked to other health services and community resources. There were also opportunities to complete a survey on health beliefs and behaviors regarding COVID-19 and to participate in several research studies.

The event accomplished its primary purpose — to get more residents vaccinated, from 12-year-olds to senior citizens. And it offered several other health services,  including screening for high blood pressure and diabetes and opportunities to get linked to other health services and community resources. There were also opportunities to complete a survey on health beliefs and behaviors regarding COVID-19 and to participate in several research studies.

Michelle Clark, secretary with the Key Coalition neighborhood group, said the event was the sort of outreach and hard work “that are what we have to do. Everyone wants to get back to some sort of normal, and to do that we have to get people to do the right things and take care of themselves.”

Marquita Taylor, the president of the Santa Fe Area Council, agreed. “There’s power in numbers, and we can have that if we talk with each other and stand together. It’s hard work but it’s also an honor to serve these strong neighborhoods with great histories. In time of need, let’s come together.”

Our Healthy KC Eastside was made possible by a Jackson County grant to UMKC of $5 million. Provided through the county’s federal CARES Act funds, the project promotes vaccinations and other health services in Eastside communities. Our Healthy KC Eastside has lined up churches, youth organizations and businesses to spread the word and hold similar vaccine events.

Such events also provide good experience for UMKC pharmacy, medical, nursing and dental students. Nearly 100 are being trained to assist with COVID-19 vaccines, and several of them at this event were learning first-hand how to check blood pressure and screen for diabetes.

Stefanie Ellison, M.D., associate dean for learning initiatives at the School of Medicine and a professor of emergency medicine, has coordinated student volunteers throughout the pandemic.

She said UMKC students’ willingness to help and to learn has shined in response to the pandemic, providing several real-time opportunities to promote interprofessional education. “It’s gotten us to do what we’ve wanted to do all along,” said Ellison, in terms of having students from the different health care schools learn together and from one another.

The event also was a chance for researchers to connect with people in the community. A researcher from Children’s Mercy, for example, gathered contact information so she could check later with participants to see if the event’s educational resources led to getting vaccinated after the event, or if they faced barriers to getting vaccinated, such as a lack of transportation or the inability to take time off work. Other researchers looked for people who already had COVID-19, to possibly study their mental health challenges and other after-effects of the pandemic.

Besides preventive health care services and advice, the event included entertainment and refreshments. From a hotdog stand and photo booth, to live DJs and a backpack giveaway, there was something for everyone.  

“This is the biggest event we’ve been able to have since COVID,” said Dennis Robinson, the board president for the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. “It’s frustrating and sad to have an effective vaccine and not have more people take advantage of it.”

Robinson, who attended UMKC in 1967 and 1968, had a long career with General Motors, working in its insurance division. After retirement, he became active with Legal Aid and other non-profits but eventually cut back just to his neighborhood council. “Ivanhoe is a great neighborhood, and we have a small but outstanding staff and board,” he said. “I’m so happy to be able to help, and every dozen vaccines we get fills the bucket a little more. Every little bit helps.”

Center for Neighborhoods Director Leads KC Neighborhood Vaccine Efforts

UMKC’s Dina Newman plays a critical role in the COVID outreach project

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

Dina Newman, director of the UMKC Center for Neighborhoods, has been involved in community engagement and development for more than 25 years. She is committed to elevating neighborhood health and viability through collaboration with residents.

“At the Center for Neighborhoods, we understand the frustration of getting correct information to communities of concern,” Newman says. “We have worked with almost 200 neighborhood leaders in 80 neighborhoods who we have developed relationships with and a level of trust.  Our involvement in OHKCE was a natural fit.”

Newman and her team organized one of the first vaccination events for the neighborhood sector. Based on her experience, she knew that the East 23rd Street PAC Neighborhood Association had the capacity to host a successful event.

“We thought piggybacking on an established community event in the neighborhood would be most effective, so we hosted the first event at a high school parking lot for a neighborhood cleanup.”

Newman says approximately 200 people attended, and some took advantage of the vaccination opportunity.

“The first event was a good trial,” she says. “There were some hiccups, but it was a good way to see the challenges firsthand. People came with their families. And people showed up to have a conversation. Having conservations with neighborhood residents is not unusual.”

While is it’s very important, Newman does not want the focus to be primarily on the number of people vaccinated at these events. Other health services are available as well.

“When we work in the community, we see a lot of multigenerational families in attendance. It’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with the grandmother who may have been there with two grandchildren. It gives us the opportunity – if the grandchildren are 12 years old or older – to say, ‘They can be vaccinated, too.’ Those conversations are really important.”

Newman says other discussions that took place at the event were significant, as well.

“We had people wander over to the table and say that every time they turn on the news, there’s different information. Then we have the chance to say, ‘Why don’t you sit down, and we can talk about it?’ And through talking with people in a respectful way, that is effective. Some people did get the vaccine after that.”

But Newman does not determine the measure of success based on a single event.

“People will leave these events and share information with their friends and families. So, it’s exponential the influence they have. And by the time the second event – for the follow up vaccine – happens in their neighborhood, the number of people touched by this information is going to multiply.”

And that, Newman says, is success.