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Hope and Healthy Futures for All

Shannon Wilson, Executive Director of GRAAHI

Ed Shannon Wilson, changing health one family at a time.

The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI) shares this Arabian proverb in its brochure:

“He who has health, has hope. And he who has hope, has everything.”

For 11 years, GRAAHI has been providing hope and healthier futures to the community through health education, research, and advocacy. While they primarily serve members of the African American community, their reach includes other minorities and impoverished families throughout West Michigan.

GRAAHI originally started as a Grand Rapids Urban League committee and eventually grew into its own nonprofit organization once the magnitude of healthcare disparities became evident.

Now, Executive Director Shannon Wilson and her five staff members take a three-pronged approach to inspiring change. They share what they know through education -- whether online, at events, or by acting as a resource for information. They learn through research within the community and via clinical studies. And they help those they serve by advocating on their behalf.
Wilson explains that social and environmental determinants -- where you live, work, and play -- often affect the health of a population. For example, if a person lives in a neighborhood where they don't feel safe, chances are, they're probably not going to be outside exercising. If someone works two jobs, they probably won't be exercising too much then either. And when there is not enough fresh produce available, people will eat what is convenient and not always what is healthiest. Wilson finds that lower income neighborhoods tend to have more fast food restaurants and more liquor stores, and typically, there are "no soccer moms out running."

With many of these social and environmental factors present in minority or low-income communities, the most common healthcare issues are diabetes and heart problems. Both of these diseases respond well to early diagnosis and treatment, and often, healthcare education may even help prevent them in the first place. That's why Wilson believes it's important to educate people about their health and provide them with the necessary healthcare resources.

GRAAHI does not provide any direct clinical services to the community, but instead refers people to doctors, hospitals, and free or low-cost healthcare clinics such as Cherry Street Health Services and Catherine's Health Care. Sometimes they get requests for race-specific physicians and pediatricians. Oftentimes, people contact them because they simply don't know how to navigate the healthcare system.

The nonprofit works to ensure everyone has access to high quality healthcare and partners with many other organizations in the area to offer "creative, innovative solutions."

"We're looking at all times to solve the problems," Wilson says.

One of the ways she says her agency does this is by "bridging the gap" between the healthcare system and the community, earning the trust of both sides. Wilson and her staff sit on a lot of committees, assist with programming, and make sure healthcare materials are culturally appropriate. They try to "give a voice to certain populations," she says.

GRAAHI offers many programs and ways for the community to get involved and become healthier. One such program, called Strong Beginnings, is geared toward improving the health of African American mothers, fathers, and their babies, from pregnancy through early childhood. Wilson says that by working with the whole family, they can help reduce infant mortality and develop healthy children.  

GRAAHI manages the fatherhood component of Strong Beginnings and other partner organizations such as Arbor Circle, Cherry Street Health Services, the Kent County Health Department, Spectrum Health MOM's program, and the Salvation Army Booth Clinic handle the rest.

Another initiative announced recently is the Urban Core Collective, which partners with Baxter Community Center, Family Outreach Center, Grand Rapids Urban League, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, and United Methodist Community House, along with the support of the Kellogg Company and United Way.

The goal of the Urban Core Collective is to address some of the social and economic factors mentioned earlier, or as Wilson puts it, "It's a united front to address conditions in the urban core."

As part of this initiative, people will be selected to participate in a nine-month Transformational Leadership Program designed to create leaders trained to improve our community.

Along with the education and research components of GRAAHI, advocacy work is a critical piece. Leaders from the organization frequently meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and take other steps to promote change in public health policy.

Currently, Wilson and her staff are educating the community on the Affordable Care Act and how it will affect them, and at the same time, letting those in Washington know how it affects the work they're doing and why it's important.

Throughout the year, GRAAHI hosts several community events designed to educate the public and encourage a healthier lifestyle. An annual event they have coming up is the Rhythm Run, a 5K run/walk that begins at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on August 17at 8:30 a.m. The event, a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield and the American Cancer Society, will also include a health fair, a farmers market, and games.

Wilson says the Rhythm Run event is a fun way to raise awareness about healthy living, plus, running is a free activity.

At another event a few years ago, GRAAHI offered health tests to participants. One woman tested "astronomically high" for hypertension and was immediately sent to the hospital for treatment.

"She credits that test with saving her life," Wilson says.

Events such as these and the organization's educational outreach programs in the last decade have created numerous success stories and many people have changed their diets or exercise habits as a result. Going forward, GRAAHI will continue to provide hope to the community and serve as a resource to ensure healthy futures for everyone.

More information can be found on GRAAHI’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. You can also email info@graahi.org to be added to their mailing list.

Heidi is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and marketing consultant who works out of her home while being pestered constantly by her two spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @HeidiSocial, but be aware that she likes her opinions strong and her humor warped

Photography by Adam Bird
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