TAC and Methodist Hospital provide free health services for underserved communities
By Lindsay Peyton
The coronavirus pandemic hit Houston about the same time the Texas Annual Conference launched its Church and Community Health Initiative, an important project with a mission to improve health in underserved communities. Wellness Director Jessica Somerville explained that while her team of community health care workers had to start new jobs working from home, they still managed to deliver services to hundreds of individuals in need.
“We recruited great people to be on our team, and they were really motivated,” she said.
At the same time, Somerville discovered a silver lining to COVID. “People were more eager to talk about health care,” she said. “The pandemic brought out how different factors in health can make individuals more susceptible to catching the virus. It made people more health aware.”
The Texas Annual Conference was already working on a plan to bridge the gap before the pandemic, and now their efforts were needed more than ever. Somerville credits Bishop Scott J. Jones with being fully aware of health care disparities among different populations long before COVID-19 put the issue in the spotlight.
“Kudos to the Bishop,” Somerville said. “He was thinking of this in advance, paying attention to studies and health professionals, and listening to people in the community, saying what can we do to help people navigate the health care system?”
The Church and Community Health Initiative started as part of Bishop Jones’ We Love All God’s Children program. He recognized that children reading below grade level were often not getting their basic health needs met, Somerville explained.
Pairing health with early childhood education made sense to the Bishop. He envisioned how churches could become both educational and medical hubs in the community, serving neighbors of all ages.
To get started, Jones worked with Houston Methodist Hospital, which awarded the TAC with a $750,000 grant to create the Church and Community Health Initiative.
Somerville, whose position is underwritten by the grant, began her assignment by hiring staff for the initiative. Nicole Thomas serves the West Houston hub, while Pelumi Oloyede is in Central Houston, Valencia Simpson-Wiltz in Southeast Houston and Cheryl Prince in the North District. Somerville oversees projects in the Sunnyside neighborhood in addition to her role as director. Their mission is to increase the skills, resources and commitment of the local churches to improve the health of their neighbors.
Already, the team has been building relationships in the community and joining with other health care agencies. They also partnered with Houston Methodist to arrange continuing care for discharged patients, with the goal of reducing readmission rates.
“Each church can say, ‘This is what we’re capable of doing and where God has led us,’” Somerville explained.
For instance, some congregations may provide meals for patients who leave the hospital and go home to an empty refrigerator. Other church volunteers may choose to simply call patients and check on them.
“A phone call is a safe way to still serve and be a force of God’s love during COVID,” Somerville said.
Community Health Coordinators have hosted screenings and educational events. Flu shot clinics are currently a top priority, Somerville said.
Community Health Coordinators are also focusing on specific causes and patients. For example, Cheryl Prince in the North District has been helping a diabetic man, as well as an elderly woman recovering from a fall.
She is connecting with other area churches and the local schools to coordinate efforts. By meeting more individuals in the community, she is able to share resources and let them know more about the initiative.
“There are still people out there in need,” Prince said. “As a child, I remember that if someone in the community had something happened or needed something, the church took care of it. Now, it’s not like that at all.”
The Church and Community Health Initiative is a move back in the right direction, she explained.
Prince has been helping area residents sign up for the Texas Annual Conference’s COVID-19 assistance program. She also assisted two families locally when their houses burned down and had to completely rebuild their lives.
One couple, Marty and Shannon Hall who are members of Mims Chapel UMC, completely lost their house by fire in October. Prince visited the home. “I was stunned by the damage,” she said. “The smell of smoke did not leave me for several days.”
As Community Health Coordinator, she helped coordinate efforts of two churches Hughes Springs FUMC and Mims Chapel UMC to donate clothes, as well as funding to the family.
“God’s handiwork is alive and well,” Prince said. “I am truly blessed to be a messenger and do His handiwork.”
Nicole Thomas, Community Health Coordinator in West Houston, is busy promoting health in her part of town – from joining with a Christian sports program to offering an online kids yoga session. She also led church volunteers in passing out masks and hand sanitizer at Mesa Food Pantry at Bear Creek UMC.
Thomas sometimes scrolls through Facebook and Nextdoor to answer direct calls of those in need. When area residents say they are searching for help, she connects them to resources at local churches.
She also heads her church’s compassionate care calls to discharged patients. “It’s just about being a listening ear,” she said.
Thomas said that becoming a Community Health Coordinator has been a dream come true. “I was in a tough place, a single mom who just moved to the area,” she said.
Also, Thomas explained that as a first generation, half Korean and half Black woman, raised by her mother, she is aware of challenges faced by a number of her neighbors. “I get the struggle of feeling like I don’t belong,” she said.
Before starting at her current post, Thomas worked nights in a gas station in the area. One day, she wandered into Bear Creek UMC. “I went in and pretty much never came back out,” she said with a laugh.
Thomas fell in love with the church and the community, volunteering whenever she could. When her Pastor Leo Marshall Tyler asked her what she wanted to do for her career, she responded, “I’m passionate about helping people. I care most about people who are down on their luck and need someone to help pick them up.”
He asked her to consider becoming a Community Health Coordinator. “I’d never heard of it before,” she said.
When Thomas discovered that the job would allow her to immerse herself in the type of outreach she wanted, she jumped at the opportunity. The next day, stay at home orders were in place.
“The pandemic was really hard for me,” she said. “I’m a people person. But you have to make the best of it. You get creative and keep going.”
Thomas said that because she has struggled in the past, she knows firsthand what a lifesaver a church can be. Now she intends to pay that forward.
“I’m a walking example of what it can do; it transformed me,” she said. “It’s not just about physical help. It’s about belonging and being understood. The first step is just coming in.”
By September, the Church and Community Health Initiative tallied an impact on about 470 individuals, ranging from providing access to medical care and driving patients to appointments to connecting to COVID testing and delivering food to clients who could not leave their homes.
“There were all kinds of ways we were able help the community in just one month,” Somerville said. “And we’re guiding people back to the church, letting them know it’s still open. It’s back to the basics, to the roots of the church, being there to be a blessing.”
She explained that the Church and Community Health Initiative empowers congregations to become a resource for medical care. There can be a number of deterrents that block people from seeking medical help, but a UMC nearby can fill the gap.
Currently, there are five hubs for the initiative in Houston. “Everything is set up and running,” Somerville said.
The hubs, armed with volunteers and bilingual translators, currently reach out to four or five churches in the vicinity. In the second year of the grant, plans call to expand to 10 congregations and then 15 the following year.
“I am hoping to get more funding and to hire more community health workers,” Somerville said. “The amount of need out there, it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s exacerbated at this point.”
She added that the pandemic increased the need for medical access, while also exposing health care disparities. The Texas Annual Conference wants to do its part to change that.
Somerville is applying to grants and asking for more volunteers to expand operations. She is also recruiting more churches to join the initiative.
“Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to try to make an impact in community health,” she said. “But if you go one by one, and one person gets a glimpse of a church’s generosity, or one person is led to a UMC, that makes a difference. It’s something they won’t forget. We’re helping them, we’re navigating them to God. We’re showing them that we still care, and we’re still here.”
Helping neighbors is what churches were created to do, Somerville added. The Texas Annual Conference is adding physical health to spiritual health, to allow churches to serve the whole person.
“Some people can’t get to a doctor, but they are willing to go down the street to a church,” she said.
To learn more, visit facebook.com/CCHealthInitiative.