Resilient Neighborhoods: NW Detroit nonprofit seeks to increase community health with new hires

Juanita Maxwell is no stranger to Detroit's HOPE Village neighborhood. Although she herself lives on the city's east side, she's been volunteering with the community development corporation HOPE Village Revitalization (HVR) and before that with nearby Focus: HOPE in northwest Detroit for a total of about five years now. 

Recently, she made the transition from being a volunteer with HVR to being an employee. Her new position as a neighborhood resource navigator involves helping neighborhood residents access resources like grants and state benefits, which is something she really enjoys.

"I've been around the community and I got to know people in the community by assisting them [as a volunteer]," says Maxwell. "It's not really hard, because I think I already have a connection with the residents, because they know me." 

Peer Support for Healthy Living

Maxwell's job is one of two new positions created by HVR this summer with the intention of improving health and well being in the neighborhood and forging a closer relationship with residents.The other is a community health advocate tasked with bringing health and wellness and resources to local residents.

The new positions emerged from work HVR has been doing around community health through a program called HOPE Village Citizens for Health (C4H). Now in its fourth year, the effort is a partnership between HVR, Wayne State University, the Urban Learning and Leadership Collaborative, and HOPE Village residents that seeks to identify and address different health issues using a style of civic engagement based on the Kettering Foundation's model of deliberative democracy. Its first project, developed with input from local citizens, involved setting up an online health information hub called HOPEVillage 360

The work of HVR's new hires, made possible through funding from donors like The Jewish Fund and Kresge Foundation, is aimed at improving the lives of HOPE Village residents by removing barriers to and creating opportunities for healthy living.  Both of the jobs are geared towards offering peer-oriented support to community members with goal of improving the quality of their lives.
Maxwell comes to her position after working in a bank for twenty years. As a volunteer with HVR and Focus: HOPE, she helped out as an office assistant and worked with the ProsperusDetroit program. Her work as a neighborhood resource navigator involves providing support to residents government programs like MI Bridges and state Food Assistance as well as access to grants for services like home repairs. 

"We knew that many community members needed assistance, but did not know how to access it," says HVR deputy director Stephanie Johnson-Cobb. "Sometimes people need that go-to person, similar to a social worker, that is armed and equipped to help them migrate through the different systems to access very important resources."

A lot of the residents Maxwell works with are seniors, especially those who don't have a lot of experience with computers. To help them, she often researches the best way to help them meet their needs and then tries to come up with creative ways to address the problems they're running into. At times, there's a level of moral support to her work as well. 

"I talk directly to people. Sometimes I get called back over and over because sometimes people panic when they feel things didn't go right," says Maxwell. "I tell them to 'be patient' or 'we'll keep calling' just to give them the confidence they need that it will work itself out." 

The nonprofit's new community health advocate Adrienne Bulger comes from a career background that includes working as a health and fitness reporter andAdrienne Bulger manager at a local gym. Before being hired in with HVR this August, she volunteered as a yoga instructor with the organization's annual farmers market. Her current work is geared towards addressing chronic diseases that plague the local community, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and childhood asthma.  She takes a holistic approach to her job, which involves sponsoring walking clinics and other events, sharing diet tips and other information, engaging in community conversations about the social determinants of health, and connecting residents with health and wellness resources.  

Bulger has really enjoyed connecting with the HOPE Village community over the past few months, and she's hopeful that her work will have a meaningful impact on people's lives.

"[When] people desire to live a more healthful lifestyle, that's really really a game changer," says Bulger. "Because it really creates a healthy community." 

Community Connections

While their positions are new, Maxwell and Bulger certainly aren't without their fans in the neighborhood.

Johnnie Cleveland, a retired nursing home administrator who lives on Plymouth Street, volunteered with Maxwell last year for a program that helped residents to get furnaces and refrigerators.  

"She's a beautiful person," says Cleveland. "She's good with helping the neighbors to get grants. And she works with getting people [fixed up] with all these programs."

Felicia Stewart is a retired secretary who lives on Clements Street in HOPE Village. She was skeptical about getting involved with HVR at first. But thanks to Maxwell's insistence she began attending the nonprofit's meetings and eventually applied for home repair loans with her support. 

"She's a very helpful person," Stewart says of Maxwell. "Right now they're going to do minor work on the outside banisters that have blown off with the wind, gutters that my mother has been approved for. And she helped me with filling out the application of the city for low-income families [to help replace] the roof.

Meanwhile, Catherine Smith is very appreciative of Bulger's work in the community. The retired government employee first met the community health advocate when she was teaching yoga at HVR's farmers market at Cool Cities Park.

"She reminds me of my daughter: persistent outgoing smart," says Smith. She's just all-around. she's very smart. and I'd call her informational." 

Bulger has been a good motivator for her too. When Smith told her she couldn't do traditional yoga, the instructor showed her how to do chair yoga. She's also been providing helpful encouragement to Smith and other residents to get their steps in at the park.

"She's got me walking pretty good," says Smith. "I can do my two miles. First it was three laps and then I got up to ten and I'm up to two miles now."

Flipping the Script

While health care is often administered from the top down by health institutions and doctors,  HVR executive Director Debbie Fisher says her organization is doing its best to "flip the script" by getting community more involved in the conversation.

Part of this strategy is certainly centered around civic engagement work the nonprofit is doing, which involves community members identifying and responding to pressing health issues. But having dedicated professionals like Maxwell and Bulger on the job, helping residents steer through bureaucracies and other barriers to health and wellness, is also a vital component of that work. And Fisher believes both of these elements will ultimately be able to provide valuable lessons for other groups around the city.

"This is a model that really can make a significant impact not just in our neighborhood but others," she says. "We think this is going to be replicable and scalable, and we're trying to put together the data to do that." 

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.