Center for Better Health and Wellness tackles health disparities beyond COVID in Benton Harbor

Established to address COVID-19-related health disparities, the center has pivoted to address additional unique health needs in predominantly Black Benton Harbor.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

In December 2020, Ben* wanted to get a COVID-19 vaccine for his elderly mother, but she wasn't up to traveling a long distance on wintry roads. Thanks to Corewell Health South's Center for Better Health and Wellness in Benton Harbor, she didn’t have to. With Ben’s help, she walked in, got her vaccination, and was back home within 20 minutes.

Opened in October 2020 with funding from the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, the center is located in Benton Harbor at 100 E. Main St., a former bank.
Staff wave from inside the Center for Better Health and Wellness.
"This is a community where a considerable number of the population have poor health outcomes, low life expectancy, and not a lot of health resources available," says Dr. Lynn Todman, vice president of health equity and community partnerships for Corewell Health South.

Charged with reducing the pandemic's inequitable impacts on Benton Harbor, whose population is 87% Black, the center first focused on providing pandemic information, personal protective equipment, and COVID vaccinations. In addition, the center provided health screenings, mental health services, and social navigation services that helped residents secure housing, food, transportation, employment, legal aid, and help with utility bills.

"It was used to provide … all the things people needed early on in the pandemic to protect themselves from infection," Todman says. "In general, we were support for people who were having a hard time and lacked the resources to effectively navigate the pandemic."
Dr. Lynn Todman.
As the pandemic has subsided, the center has pivoted to address additional unique health needs in Benton Harbor. The Berrien County Health Department has found that the county's Black residents have a mortality rate 35% higher than that of white residents.

"It's easy to get focused on the actions and behaviors taken by a person that lead to these [poor health] outcomes. But that's such an incomplete story," says Nicki Britten, director of health equity for Corewell South. "We have a lot of team discussions to deepen our ability to see things through a different lens. How did the structures and policies that people have encountered throughout their lives elicit some of the behaviors? How have these set the stage for all these things to go wrong?"

Center staff realize that these disparities cannot be attributed to individuals making poor health choices but are direct results of the psychological trauma, poverty, undernutrition, housing insecurity, and other social determinants of health that arise from institutional racism. That’s where the center’s social navigators step in.
Nicki Britten.
"Through our social navigation program, we see people who are in extreme crisis, and it's not necessarily through fault of their own," Britten says. "If you have an issue, we're not going to shy away. We had one gentleman, an older gentleman, who had just gotten a smartphone and didn't know how to set it up. He came into our office and asked, ‘Can somebody help me here?’ So, our staff sat with him and helped him set up his cell phone to make sure he knew how to make calls."

"A lot of things impact your health beyond what happens when you come to visit somebody like me, a cardiologist," adds Dr. Willie Lawrence, the Center for Better Health and Wellness' medical director. "The so-called social determinants of health happen where people work, play, and live."

Acclaimed doctor at the helm

Lawrence brings a wealth of experience to the center. After completing his medical degree and residency at Harvard University, Lawrence did his internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and completed his cardiology fellowship at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Before coming on board at the center, he served as director of Midwest Heart and Vascular Services and division chief of cardiology at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. He also serves as an interventional cardiologist on Corewell’s medical staff, seeing cardiology patients at Corewell facilities in Coloma, Niles, and St. Joseph. Recently, he was honored as the 2023 Press Ganey Physician of the Year.
Dr. Willie Lawrence.
"I believe that Corewell’s mission of health equity is real. I voted with my feet. I came here and I wouldn't have come here if I didn't believe that," Lawrence says. "We're committed to creating equity in our urban and rural communities alike."

He notes that during his 30 years of working as an interventional cardiologist in a tertiary care hospital, he thought his job was to provide a prescription for the patient’s blood pressure and "send them on their way."

"That was the end of my work. Then they came back, and I recognized that they were still hypertensive," Lawrence says. "In a lot of instances, you write a prescription and you don't recognize that people may not be able to pay for that prescription, or they may have things going on in their life — stressful situations that impact their ability to fill that prescription."

At the Center for Better Health and Wellness, Lawrences sees the staff’s role as meeting people where they are and understanding what else in their lives is impacting their health.

"We look at our role as not just waiting for disease to happen but trying to get upstream to really achieve wellness and prevent people from needing our more advanced medical services," Lawrence says. "We want to look at the whole patient, the whole person, as we address issues of disease."

Britten shares one example.

"The center helped one gentleman get his criminal record expunged. He was able to get gainful employment, which of course really changed his trajectory," she says. "From there, people get stable housing. They’re able to be less food-insecure. They’re able to do all these things that have an impact on overall mental health, well-being, and feeling that they're contributing to and belonging in the community."

Continuing the work beyond COVID

By 2024, the Center for Better Health and Wellness will move from its current 1,200-square-foot facility to a 26,000-square-foot building at 145 Main St. in Benton Harbor. When the renovation is complete, the new location will provide Benton Harbor residents even more access to health care and social navigation supports including cardiovascular care, mental health care, specialty care, and integrative non-medical services. 
The future home of the Center for Better Health and Wellness.
A teaching kitchen will provide a gathering space for community members to enjoy healthy cooking demos and classes. Additional clinical space will allow Corewell to potentially expand programming in lifestyle medicine, opportunities for pregnant women and young children, mental health services, and potentially primary care.

"We've heard from our community how much they really want more places to be able to gather, meet, and bump into each other," Britten says. "So we've designed the space with some of that in mind." 
The future site of the expanded Center for Better Health and Wellness.
The center will continue to provide social navigation support to facilitate residents’ access to housing, food, and other resources required for good health. 

"People want access to health care within the city of Benton Harbor. They prefer not to have to go across the bridge [to St. Joseph] for care," Todman says. "... The services we provide are culturally appropriate. Many of the people who work in the center are African-American and are able to create a level of comfort for many of the people who come in."

When the center first opened, Todman notes that people had low expectations for its physical appearance. They were surprised when they stepped inside to find a space that was not only comfortable, clean, and neat, but also reflected the community it served.

"When we were planning to decorate the original space, the immediate response was to put pictures in of people who did not look like the people in the Benton Harbor community," Todman says. "I asked to work with our designers to pick images that portrayed positive aspects of Black lives, like a grandfather and his grandson, or a parent reading with their child."
Plans for the future home of the Center for Better Health and Wellness.
Todman is particularly proud that the center is a place where Benton Harbor residents want to be. 

"I'm proud that we're taking the same approach with the scaled-up facility," she says. "Of course, many people use the center who are not African-American. But it is also good for those individuals to see those positive images on the walls. So it's good for everybody." 

* Real name omitted for privacy.

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or

Nicki Britten photo courtesy of Corewell South. All other photos by Taylor Scamehorn.
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