Health rankings published in recent years have made it clear that there’s a lot of work to do in Wyandotte County, Kansas, which has some of the worst health outcomes in the state, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
But the data has also inspired many community groups, including churches, to work together to makes some changes.
He recently spoke about his projects and the church’s role in improving health in Wyandotte County.
Crawford: I am indeed an original ‘Dotte,’ and when I was younger, it was a very vibrant, a very community-oriented neighborhoods. And when I say ‘neighborhoods,’ there were multiple neighborhoods that made up this community. There were kids that lived four or five, six blocks from me that we were always involved with. One of the projects I’m currently working on is the Jersey Creek Trail, and at that time, there were any number of 15 to 20 kids that would be riding up and down that trail. There would be multiple kids playing basketball. There would be multiple kids in the park on a day-to-day basis. And so when I was a youth, this community had value. When I was a youth, being part of this community meant something in a positive way. And so one of the things that’s very important to me is improving the health of this community to restore it to the level of dignity that it once had.
New Bethel is mostly an African American church. How well do – in general – do you see public health programs in Kansas City, Kansas serving the needs of African American people?
Not very well at all, because we know that when you go to the safety net clinics that currently exist in the Wyandotte County area, there’s a very small percentage of their patient population that’s African American. So with the large number – with there being 25 percent African American, 25 percent Latino in the Wyandotte County area – they currently aren’t going – African Americans aren’t [going] to the safety net clinics. They currently aren’t going to primary care doctors. So what’s happening? What’s occurring is the majority of them are not addressing their health, and they’re going to the emergency room when it becomes a crisis. And so we have individuals who are doing crisis healthcare versus prevention and managing their healthcare. And so what I’m hoping to do with the community health organization is to change the paradigm – to move the needle from individuals being unhealthy to individuals recognizing and appreciating the importance of being healthy.
What do health programs need to do differently in the way they engage with African Americans?
So we have to meet the people where they are. I’ll use the example of funerals. Most times when we have funerals in our churches, we serve repast for the families afterwards. Well, what are we serving those families? Most often, it’s those types of foods that have literally contributed to why that person is deceased. So what I’ve tried to do is to give them options. So instead of just having fried chicken, why don’t we have baked and broiled chicken? And what I have learned: that when we provide baked and broiled chicken, that is what is consumed first. So out people will make healthier choices when they have those options. If all they’ll going to get is fried chicken, then they’ve going to eat it. But if we give them other options, most often they will choose the healthier choices.
Now health isn’t necessarily something people have traditionally heard in their churches. How do congregants respond to health messages coming from their religious organization?
One of the things that we find very important – particularly in African American churches – is the role and the influence of the pastor. So, as the pastor goes, so goes the congregation. If the pastor says that I’m going to be the first one in line to get my blood pressure taken, if the pastor says I’m going to be the first one in line to get the prostate cancer exam, if the pastor says I’m going to be the first one in line to get weighed – so, as the pastor leads, the people will follow. So I challenge the pastors of our community to identify themselves as ‘healthy pastors’ versus just ‘pastors,’ because when they become healthy, their congregations become healthy.
What do imagine as a best-case future scenario for KCK?
Well, the one thing that I do not want to see the next time these numbers come out is that Wyandotte County is one of the most unhealthiest counties in the state of Kansas. I think we have the opportunity to move the needle where Wyandotte County becomes more healthy. And I’ve often said: if we do our job well, I don’t have to worry about the civic leaders, because the governors and the senators and the congressmen will come knocking on our door wanting to know what we’re doing because why? A healthier community is a more vibrant community. When that community is more vibrant, crime is down. When that community is more healthy, things like domestic violence goes down. When the community is more healthy, there’s more opportunity for employment. So addressing health, I believe, is the foundation of increasing all those things that bring down a community.
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.