Community Solutions: Revitalizing Neighborhoods Through Skilled Volunteering

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Northeast Hartford, Connecticut, was hit hard when the Swift gold leaf factory shut its doors in
Northeast Hartford, Connecticut, was hit hard when the Swift gold leaf factory shut its doors in 2004. But a local nonprofit is looking to revitalize the economy.

Multi-generational poverty is a chronic problem in many U.S. cities these days. Studies show that children who are born into poverty due to unemployment, low wages, illness or other factors are often likely to repeat that cycle throughout their lives.

It’s not as if these people fail to recognize the credos that fostered the American work ethic: effort, elbow grease and ingenuity, researchers say. But they lack opportunity: The social and economic networks within their reach are limited and don’t always allow for success.

Few American communities better reflect this truism than Northeast Hartford, Connecticut, a section of town once bolstered by a thriving gold leaf factory. But when the factory closed in 2004, the opportunities for generations of workers in one of the state’s lowest-income areas were hit hard. Health statistics reflected this plummet as well: By 2012, Connecticut’s Health Index found that residents in Northeast Hartford topped the list when it came to health risks.

The nonprofit organization Community Solutions is working to change those statistics through a number of community-based initiatives that help solidify resources and empower residents.

Community Solutions’ first task was to rehabilitate the old factory, which was donated by the former owners, and establish it as a community base. Then the organization set its sights on revitalizing other resources in the community, harnessing the knowledge and skills of local residents who would benefit from the improvements.

Gina Federico-Muslim, who manages Community Solutions’ Hartford properties, said improving access to local parks and recreational facilities was one of several “low-footprint” projects that not only engaged local partners, but also helped improve living conditions and healthy opportunities for residents. “These endeavors, along with the community healthcare worker pilot, are part of a collaborative plan to positively impact health outcomes, increase community resiliency and spark an economic turnaround in the area,” Federico-Muslim told 3p, who said it was the collaborative community effort that helped to make this endeavor a success.

“Our team at Community Solutions has convened a broad coalition of partners to tackle some of the hardest issues around health, healthcare delivery and the financing of that delivery in neighborhoods of high poverty like Northeast Hartford. In the course of that work, we have been grateful to form a partnership with the Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation that breaks the mold of the traditional funder-fundee relationship. Boehringer Ingelheim’s skills-based volunteering approach has allowed us to build a true collaboration that harnesses the experience and expertise of Boehringer Ingelheim employees in the service of community goals.”

Community Solutions focuses healthcare in Northeast Hartford, one of three communities that make up North Hartford, a federally-designated promise zone. The group has been instrumental in improving healthcare access for many of Northeast Hartford’s residents. Promise zones are, by allocation, areas that, due to higher than normal risk factors, can receive increased partnership between the federal government and other stakeholders.

“Compared to the larger Hartford region, the area’s population faces elevated rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease as well as the most diminished life expectancy in the state of Connecticut,” Federico-Muslim said. “Inspired by the early successes of a small program we ran in 2013, we are currently leading partners in the launch of a community healthcare worker pilot program designed to better coordinate care and raise quality of life for 500 medically vulnerable North Hartford residents.”

And that is where community partnership and expertise comes in. “Skills-based volunteers have helped us research, design and implement this project. And, over the next two years of implementation, we expect to see three key outcomes as a result of the pilot,” she said.

First, the organization will look for an improvement in healthcare experience, with more in-home care provided by community healthcare workers (CHWs) who are trained for the particular socioeconomic challenges being faced by patients. Second, the organization has its eye on ratcheting-up the overall health of the community, so that patients influenced by factors like housing and economic challenges can succeed in sticking to their healthcare regimens and, gradually, improving their quality of life.

“Lastly,” said Federico-Muslim, “we expect to see a reduction in larger system costs. Our target population is largely covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Many are high utilizers of the local emergency department and/or are dealing with chronic medical conditions. Well-managed primary and preventive care is far cheaper than caring for people in the hospital.”

“No one group can solve these challenges alone,” she said. Volunteers are paired based on their expertise and come from a variety of public and nonprofit sectors. “We look for thought and implementation partners who are familiar with local neighborhoods, as well as local policy and the healthcare space.”

And that’s the value of skilled volunteers. “They bring highly seasoned insight that improves our ability to navigate a very complex landscape. With their help, we have been able to move our projects forward in significant ways.”

The structure benefits the volunteers as well, many of whom care deeply about their neighborhoods and are driven by a desire to see socioeconomic changes. Through volunteering their expertise, they gain valuable work experience as well. “Many walk away with new, hands-on knowledge as well as new and meaningful relationships” that can help them in future jobs, Federico-Muslim explained.

“Community Solutions works toward a future without homelessness in which poverty never follows families beyond a single generation.” It’s a tall goal, given today’s statistics. But projects like the one in Northeast Hartford are proving, with the help of volunteers, that public-private partnerships do work in turning around multi-generational poverty.

Through its skills-based partnership, Federico-Muslim said: “[Our] collaborative process results in more effective local services, more connected and resilient communities, reduced taxpayer costs, and better lives for struggling people.”

Image credit: Flicrk/Jonathan Haeber

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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