How one Grand Rapids community is fighting for equitable health care access

A few years ago, health care access in the 49507 ZIP code was at the center of contentious conversations among officials at health care systems, nonprofit organizations and public health care experts. No one could figure out why residents of the 49507 ZIP code were turning to emergency room facilities to receive needed medical care despite the area hosting a clinic focused on offering primary care services.

Ron Jimmerson is the executive director at Seeds of Promise. He says when his team at Seeds of Promise began asking residents back in 2015 why they were not going to the Browning Claytor Health Center to receive services, they quickly discovered that residents’ decisions to avoid the clinic had everything to do with perception and attitudes. 

“Time and time again residents said they had had negative experiences at the clinic where they felt like the providers didn’t seem to care about them and pushed medication as an alternative to spending time getting to know them as patients,” he says.

Jimmerson said that was only just the beginning. These findings helped his organization, Seeds of Promise, facilitate a process of conversations between residents and the health care providers. 

By knocking on doors and engaging more than 300 residents through a survey, Jimmerson was able to use that feedback to help Browning Claytor implement the changes the residents wanted to see. 

“They just wanted to be heard and treated like humans and listened to by the nurses and doctors taking care of them,” he adds. 

This process eventually led to residents return to Browning Claytor Health Center to begin new relationships with providers. 

Today, Jimmerson has mainstreamed the process through the Seeds of Promise Health and Wellness Impact Team. He says impact team members help to ensure residents in the Madison Square neighborhood and the 49507 ZIP code have a say in how they receive health care resources and support. 

The Health Impact Team is working on a campaign with the Be Well Center of the Kent County Health Department to reduce the number of residents who prefer to drink sugary drinks over water and other non-caloric beverages as their usual daily fluid intake. 

Additionally, the team is working to increase community members’ knowledge of services available in the neighborhood by organizing the annual Southtown Community Free Health Screening Fair. The goal of the fair is to help educate residents on health and wellness resources inside and outside of the community. 
Photos by Isabel Media Studios
This work is being led by Ludie Weddle, a long time resident of the 49507 neighborhood. She says she’s always been interested in the health and wellness of her community. 

“I have a lot of interest in this neighborhood — keeping this neighborhood safe, clean and keeping the neighborhood healthy,” she adds.

Weddle is a registered dietitian by trade. She specializes in helping individuals learn how to manage issues like diabetes and stress through diet and exercise. She believes everyone deserves to have access to healthy food, as well as clean and open areas to be physically active. 

“I know when I take care of myself, I exercise better, eat better and I feel better. I want everyone to have that opportunity and have that same experience,” she says.

Currently, Weddle is working with the rest of the Health Impact Team to continue to reduce emergency room visits. The way she sees it, the problem is systemic. Residents turn to the emergency room for services due to systemic poverty and overall a lack of awareness of the alternative resources that are available. 

“Our community is dying from a lack of knowledge. Lack of income. Lack of motivation. Lack of support. Lack of trusting a system that’s been charged with taking care of them,” she says.

When you are poor, Weddle explains, a person is not going to use the limited income they have to address some of the health issues they may be experiencing. So, these issues go unaddressed until the individual finds themselves at a dead end in the emergency room. 

Photos by Isabel Media Studios

“What we do at the Health Impact Team is exposure. We make [residents] aware by talking to them and developing relationships” she says. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to suffer with this. You don’t have to be ashamed of having mental health issues. You don’t have to feel guilty if your diabetes is out of control. We can help you learn how to manage it. We can help support you.’” 

Even though the pandemic has changed the way the Health Impact Team offers services, Weddle says they are still focused on serving the community’s health care needs and, right now, they do this by ensuring residents have access to masks and the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Thanks to a partnership through the Kent County Health Department, the county is scheduled to do 10 mobile drives in the community to vaccinate all adults in the area. According to Weddle, these types of partnerships are the kinds that benefit the community the most.

“We are not duplicating services — instead, we are using resources that are already in the community to reach and make our residents aware,” Weddle says. 

While tackling systems that have not always been accessible to those experiencing poverty and Black and Brown people hasn’t been easy — Weddle and Jimmerson both agree it’s work that can only be done by putting the residents’ voices at the forefront. 

Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.
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