Mobilizing the Community for Improved Health

December 9, 2015 /

By Ray Gonzales, PH.D.

Five years ago, The California Endowment launched a $1 billion dollar, ten year investment in its Building Healthy Communities (BHC) campaign. The campaign targets 14 communities across the state, one of which is South Kern, with the goal of improving health outcomes.

Now at the halfway mark, BHC South Kern has made great strides in making the community a healthier place for its residents.

BHC communities were identified based on a number of critical indicators, such as health outcomes, poverty rates and employment statistics, as well as education attainment among both adults and children. The rationale was that these social determinants resulted in the poor health outcomes of residents in selected communities.

Planning for BHC South Kern began in June of 2010 at the offices of the Lamont School District, where community members from the four selected areas of Arvin, Lamont, Weedpatch, and Greenfield gathered to organize, learn more about the statewide initiative and select representatives to a Steering Committee that would guide the planning process.

Over the ensuing nine months, residents, youth groups, educators, health professionals, local government officials and advocates came together to work toward the campaign goals. In the first year, the Steering Committee and twenty-three focus groups met monthly, and three area-wide meetings were held that brought together more than a thousand residents to discuss the most pressing health issues and possible solutions.

The result was the formulation of a plan that reflects a shared vision of the future, prioritizes goals and lays out strategies to achieve the targeted changes.

Highlighting the community-wide effort, BHC South Kern Hub Manager Jennifer Wood-Slayton noted, “residents have emerged as leaders, the youth took the lead in community and park cleanups, and parents tackled school discipline issues.”

Dr. Michelle McLean, superintendent of Arvin Union School District and an early leader in the movement, pointed to the role being played by community groups including the Family Resource Center and the Dolores Huerta Foundation in advancing the campaign goals.

Since its initial adoption in 2010, the BHC South Kern plan has been updated twice to ensure that priorities remain relevant to the community. Currently the five areas being targeted are health, the environment, education, recreation, and the local economy.

Research committees worked to develop strategies for each area, including efforts to enhance access to quality medical care, in part through expanded enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, and to reduce the harmful effects of agricultural pollution and ensure access to clean water.

That last effort culminated in the Agua4All plan, which helped establish water stations around South Kern, including three school districts and five head start programs, noted McLean. In Arvin, Agua4All led to the introduction of water filtration systems that ensure residents there have access to water free of arsenic.

The Agua4All campaign was recently recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.

In South Kern schools, groups partnered with districts to improve their School Wellness Policies. “Arvin Union School District developed ‘breakfast in the classroom’ and more access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” explained McLean, “including salad bars and non-flavored milk … programs which were adopted by other school districts.”

Community youth, meanwhile, have taken the lead in such things as spreading the message around environmental concerns, while advocates continue to put pressure on local councils to address community needs.

Timoteo Prado and Lori DeLeon are with the Dolores Huerta Foundation. They note the success they and others have had in introducing Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) in Kern schools, a key step in changing school discipline policies that have long had a negative impact on students of color.    

The “different strategies … were voted on by the communities along the way,” said Wood-Slayton, adding the overall plan is meant to be flexible so as to accommodate the shifting needs of those it is meant to benefit.

Looking forward to the next five years, there is clearly more work that needs to be done. In future articles I’ll explore in more depth some of the activities being pursued to make health a reality for all South Kern residents.

But if the unprecedented outpouring of community-wide support and participation that has happened over the last five years is an indicator, I’m confident we can make this happen.

Ray Gonzales (pictured below) is a retired California State University Professor who also served in the State Legislature; U.S. Diplomatic Service; Director of Recruitment for U.S. Peace Corps, and currently serves on the Bakersfield City Schol District Board. Over 250 published articles and latest book: A Lifetime of Dissent, 2006.

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