Methodist Hospital Gives Conference $750,000 to Give Under-Served Communities Access to Health
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
The coronavirus pandemic did not stop a new health initiative between Methodist Hospital and Conference churches, dedicated to improving health in under served communities. In fact, its goal has only become more urgent.
Wellness Director Jessica Somerville is leading the way for the Church and Community Health Initiative for the Texas Annual Conference. When COVID-19 forced her and the recently created a team of community health care workers to stay at home, they took the opportunity to reach out in the community and start forming relationships.
“There’s still a lot of work we can do from home,” Somerville said. “This catapulted us to get to know our community and start letting them know that there are resources out there.”
Meetings continued on Zoom and needs are continually assessed during the crisis. Already, the team has partnered with food banks to distribute needed items.
Pairing health with early childhood education made sense to Bishop Scott J. Jones. At the same time, he dreamed that churches could become medical hubs in the community, serving neighbors of all ages.
To get started, Jones worked with Houston Methodist Hospital’s Rev. Charles Millikan, vice president of spiritual care and values integration, and Ryane K. Jackson, director of the Community Benefits Department.
Jackson explained that the Conference and Houston Methodist shared the same goal – to assure that under served populations have better access and awareness of health programs.
“Bishop Jones wanted to see if Houston Methodist would be willing to help get the program going and give it legs,” Jackson recalled. “It felt like a natural connection.”
Houston Methodist awarded a $750,000 grant, pledging $250,000 annually for the next three years to move the Church and Community Health Initiative forward.
“We’re excited to be part of this new effort they are embarking on,” Jackson said. “It aligns with our mission and our focus to help the under served. It’s the right thing to do.”
She is confident that the church-based health hubs will help Houstonians find better proactive, primary care options, rather than reactive emergency room visits.
“Prevention is the key to health, and primary care is essential to prevention,” Jackson said. “A lot of under served people don’t have access to insurance and if they do, it doesn’t go far.”
The Community Health Initiative is one way to remove that barrier. “The church is a source of comfort and trust,” Jackson said. “There are people who aren’t comfortable going to a medical facility, but might trust their pastors.”
Somerville’s position, which began in January, is underwritten by the grant.
“When I came in, we were just building this project from the ground up,” Somerville said. “They hired me and were like, ‘Let’s go.’”
One of her first tasks was hiring staff for the initiative. She brought in Dr. Fred Smith to serve Central Houston and the Third Ward, Nicole Thomas for West Houston and Cheryl Prince for North East Texas.
Somerville will oversee projects in the Sunnyside neighborhood in addition to her role as director. Currently, a search is underway for a candidate in the Southeast Houston position.
Already, Somerville and staff underwent training and received certification at the University of Houston’s Community Health Worker Initiative. “It was amazing, and helped us navigate heart and head,” she said.
Somerville explained that the staff members will work at United Methodist Center health hubs at the Children’s Centers when they reopen to provide care for area families as well as the day care teachers. Partnerships with healthcare providers will allow them to offer immunizations and other exams.
Staff members will also help participating churches with their own health ministries and lead community classes, focusing on diabetes, heart health, blood pressure, fitness and nutrition.
In addition, Methodist Hospital will refer patients to the community health workers. “This will help people get what they need so they can stay healthy,” Somerville said.
UMCs are invited to partner with the program – providing space on different days of the week to reach their neighborhoods. Somerville explained that not having transportation can prevent people from seeking medical help – but they might still have a UMC nearby.
“Each church can provide a small space or office where the worker can set up,” Somerville said. “And that way we’re using our churches for more than just Sunday.”
In fact, she believes that this could be a low-barrier entry point for people to come to church. “It’s so smart for churches to become health hubs,” she said. “The church can be a one-stop shop, which is what they are meant to be.”
The program will empower each community it serves, Somerville added, so they can continue to make their own healthy decisions. She envisions the initiative growing to serve other neighborhoods as well.
Somerville said the pandemic has exposed Houston’s health care disparities. The Texas Annual Conference wants to provide every adult and child with care.
“We’re meeting people where they are and helping them get healthy,” Somerville said. “We’re giving them access to what they need – and maybe even helping restore their faith.”