Over the past two years, a newly formed coalition of health care institutions and professionals has raised $10.5 million to fund initiatives it deems vital to improving the life expectancy of West Side residents.
Operating as West Side United – with an official launch last year – the group has a goal of reducing a 16-year life expectancy gap between residents of the Loop and West Side neighborhoods. They aim to cut that gap in half by 2030.
On Tuesday morning, the group celebrated its first anniversary and offered an update on its progress.
“Good intentions and inspiring missions are meaningless if you don’t have the money to bring them to life,” said Darlene Hightower, a member of the group who is also the associate vice president of the office of community engagement and practice at Rush University Medical Center. “We made commitments to be in this work for the long haul. And with support like this, we’ll be able to keep that commitment.”
Members on Tuesday also shared goals for 2019 and beyond. The goals focus on four areas: economic vitality, education, health and health care, and neighborhood and physical environment.
As part of its efforts to address economic vitality, West Side United invested $1.7 million in six new and existing community development projects in West Side neighborhoods that will increase affordable housing, connect youth to services and build capacity for established community organizations.
The organization also partnered with Accion and Northern Trust to develop a small business accelerator program that dispersed $85,000 in one-time capital grants to seven small businesses. By 2021, West Side United hopes to have funded $250,000 in small business grants.
In addition, West Side United developed a medical assistant pathway program with four area hospitals to help existing employees in entry-level and non-clinical roles transition into medical assistant roles.
Humboldt Park resident Audrey Tankson works at Rush University Medical Center and is currently participating in the program. She says it affords her the opportunity to further her education and obtain a better career. This type of investment, she says, not only builds the skills of employees at hospitals but also “helps build community.”
By 2021, hospitals partnering with West Side United intend to make 3,500 new hires and spend $100 million in local purchasing on the West Side.
Among the group’s education goals is to increase the number of paid internships it provides high school students from 400 to 600 and develop community hubs in two schools that will provide children and their families wrap-around services, like literacy classes and family health services.
“The collective vision is for every student on Chicago’s West Side to have the opportunity to thrive in a world-class learning environment in their neighborhood,” Hightower said. “Kids shouldn’t have to travel miles away for a great education.”
West Side United is also making investments in community and mental health, which was identified as a top priority by community members. Last month, the organization announced it was committing $250,000 to expand mental health services through co-location grants for local social service agencies.
Esperanza Health Centers is among those receiving grants and will provide counseling one day a week at Hammond Elementary School in South Lawndale, as well as offer referrals to family members for primary care.
“Children there really need these services,” said Daniel Vegara, a Little Village native who works as a counselor at Esperanza Health Centers. “We (see) children who have behavioral issues and they’re punished but no one is really listening to them to understand why they do what they do. … Because of West Side United, I’m able to make them feel special even if it is just for 30 minutes of their week.”
In addition to addressing mental health, West Side United intends to focus on hypertension and maternal child health in 2019. “Mortality in parts of the West Side are two times higher than Chicago’s average (mortality),” said Wayne Giles, who’s the dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. “Rates of hypertension are 33 percent higher in adults on the West Side. … That’s totally unacceptable. We can and must do better.”
As part of the effort to address neighborhood and physical environments, West Side United will launch a food voucher program, with the goal of serving 1,000 families per month by 2021, continue nutrition education programming at West Side schools and work to ensure residents are able to access fresh fruits and vegetables.
West Side United is forming a 17-member community advisory council to “track the pulse” of the community and integrate community input into planned or proposed initiatives. The organization is seeking applications from those who live and work on the West Side. For more information, visit the organization’s website.