From ‘Womb to Tomb,’ Jay Weiss Center’s Community Wellness Coalition Brings Hope to Overtown

When Emanuel Washington, who was born and raised in Overtown, graduated from the University of Miami in 1982, he dreamed of uniting the University’s resources with community organizations that were struggling to improve the health, educational opportunities and overall quality of life in his impoverished neighborhood.

Almost 30 years later, on the evening of February 22, to be precise, Washington’s dream came true when a standing room-only crowd gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Community Wellness Coalition at the University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park, in the heart of Overtown.

“Remember the first time you went to Disney World?” Washington, a retired city of Miami firefighter, asked the community activists, UM faculty, students, social workers and sprinkling of residents in the crowd. “That’s how I feel right now. It’s one of the most exciting days of my life. It’s the birth of a dream.”

As it happened, Sonjia Kenya, Ed.D., M.S., MA., research assistant professor of family medicine and community health, had nurtured the same dream since she arrived at UM four years ago, and began traversing the streets and talking to the residents of the neighborhood where Washington grew up. Invoking the words of social justice philosopher Cornel West, who had just spoken on the Gables campus, Kenya told the crowd the volunteer coalition will work with community groups to develop programs that meet identified needs “from the womb to the tomb.”

“The University of Miami and Overtown came from two very different wombs but they were born to the same family – the city of Miami,” Kenya said. “UM and Overtown are in the same boat, paddling the same waters in the same city and, from the womb to the tomb, UM and Overtown are destined to work together, to reflect the best of what Miami can do.”

Recruited to Miami to lead the Office of Health Disparities Programs at the Miller School’s Jay Weiss Center for Social Medicine and Health Equity, Kenya and a small cadre of community health workers worked tirelessly to meet the needs of residents, bringing exercise classes, workshops on domestic violence and self-esteem, Q&A sessions on hepatitis and diabetes, and other topics, into community centers, parks, shelters, barbershops and beauty salons.

Along the way, she met locals like Washington, who knew as soon as he encountered Kenya – who is so energetic she’s been said to make a cup of coffee nervous – that the time had finally come for a successful private/public/academic partnership that could match community needs with available resources.

They had an equally committed ally in the Jay Weiss Center’s director, Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, who announced at the inaugural meeting that the center is moving to the UM Life Science & Technology Park soon.

“Know that the Jay Weiss Center is here, not with empty promises, but real commitment and with the real promise of partnership and collaboration moving forward so we can work together to achieve the same ends,” Kobetz said.

Kobetz, who also directs the Disparities and Community Outreach Core at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, knows the value of building community partnerships to improve health outcomes and overall well-being. The alliances she formed with organizations in nearby Little Haiti enabled her to develop a culturally sensitive strategy for combating the high incidence of cervical cancer she uncovered among women in the ethnic enclave.

Knowing that prior programs had failed because stakeholders were not consulted about the goals, Kenya, now the Jay Weiss Center’s director of community health programs, and the center’s Kiera Wallace and Jamal Jones, both research assistants and community health workers, conducted a survey, the “Health of Overtown’s People and Environment,” or H.O.P.E., to gauge community needs before launching the coalition.

Respondents cited gun-related injuries, HIV/AIDS, mental health, diabetes and teen-aged pregnancy as the top five health problems in Overtown. They also cited drug abuse, alcohol abuse, unsafe sex, violence and lack of medical check-ups or health screenings as the top five unhealthy behaviors.

Exactly what programs the coalition will develop to tackle these and other issues is evolving, but as Kenya noted at the inaugural meeting, the structure is now in place, and the conversation has begun to pursue the answers. Just as important, she said, there’s an ambitious and driven cadre of volunteers eager to develop programs they can one day hand over to their successors—Miller School M.D. and M.P.H. students who are already working on community gardens, nutrition classes at Booker T. Washington High School, a medical-legal clinic, HIV prevention and wellness workshops in Overtown.

“This baby— the Community Wellness Coalition—was created to be an effective bridge that collaborates with Overtown residents to leverage UM resources to improve education and employment opportunities in Overtown,” Kenya said. “We are not going anywhere. We plan on being here from the womb to the tomb.”

For more information or to support or join the coalition, contact Jamal Jones at the Jay Weiss Center for Social Medicine and Health Equity at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 305-243-8893.

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