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.”