“Is that yours?” a surprised 9-year old had asked me as I had unlocked my bike from a post at the Martin Luther King Jr. Rec Center in South L.A. last weekend.
“Yes,” I had said. “Girls ride bikes, too.”
He gave me a high five and flashed me a toothy grin.
Much to my horror, I saw that at least five of his front teeth were completely capped in silver.
He’s not the first kid I’ve come across with a mouth full of silver baby teeth. Dental hygiene is a significant issue in lower-income communities like South L.A.
Which is why it was wonderful to see the grand opening of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center’s new Health and Wellness Campus yesterday. The new site, located across the street from their existing clinic on 58th and Hoover, will not only be meeting the medical needs of as many as 30,000 new patients, but will also offer dental care for young children.
White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were both on hand to celebrate the grand opening of the new center, encourage people to enroll in Covered California, and underscore the notion that health care is a right, not a privilege.
What I believe makes St. John’s an important community center, however, is not that they can serve so many patients. It is how they do it.
They have built important partnerships with community organizations active in the area.
Yesterday, for example, you could get help signing up for health insurance with Community Coalition, an organization that has actively worked to educate hard-to-reach populations about the Affordable Health Care Act.
If you wanted to learn about bike safety, staff from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) were there. Colin Bogart, LACBC Education Director, had also recently dropped off a donation of several bikes to the center, as they are looking to launch a bike club for their patients. (If you’re interested in volunteering to help out with monthly maintenance of the bikes, please contact Colin at colin(at)la-bike.org)
Community Services Unlimited was also there, offering healthy produce for sale. They normally have a stand there Monday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., providing patients with a reliable source of organic produce and offering them the potential of attending gardening and cooking workshops.
Beyond the partnerships, the way St. John’s works to treat the whole patient is key in a community where understanding residents’ daily struggles is important to addressing the root causes of their health problems.
A weekly diabetes class I had the privilege of sitting in on a few times, for example, is comprised of lower-income patients who often scramble to find healthy food in their communities or have few safe spaces to exercise. Some can’t keep food on the table at all when money runs out, and sometimes must make do with carbohydrate- and salt-heavy food bank offerings, despite knowing the damage those foods will do to their systems.
Understanding this, the clinic has set up a three-hour class where patients come in early in the morning to get their blood sugar tested, eat a healthy meal together, take part in a group health class led by one or more of their doctors, and exercise together for almost an hour.
It’s created a friendly environment that feels almost family-like. Older women giggle as they dance zumba together with a wonderful teacher they adore. They practically revel in their ability to move and the progress they are making with their weight loss.
One woman described how she had not been able to kick her legs when she began the class — she used to have to lean against the wall to do basic steps. Another pulled out the waistband of her pants to show how much weight she had dropped since she began the class.
When they aren’t dancing zumba, they are out walking 58th St., picking up garbage and caring for the tomato and other plants in the parkway garden boxes St. John’s had set up along the length of the street last August. The food grown — ranging from herbs, to corn, to tomatoes — was available to the patients or anyone else living in the area who wanted fresh produce.
Although many of the boxes have now been filled with flowers to hold the space over til new crops are planted, the example they set has expanded north of the clinic. Boxes distributed to patients living along 57th St. (below) last November are brimming with healthy greens.
Every time I speak to Lisa Hubbard, Director of Community Health Initiatives at St. John’s, she always seems to have news of some new partnership she is trying to build or program she is trying to expand. She has refused to take credit for programs like the garden boxes, saying they are just drawing inspiration from efforts they are seeing in other communities.
But, the fact that they are continually trying to find new ways to broaden understandings of health beyond what happens in an exam room with a doctor is a huge boon to South L.A. With the opening of the new health campus, they now have an even greater platform from which to do it.
To see the new facility, head to 58th and Hoover. To volunteer to help maintain the bikes donated to St. John’s, contact colin(at)la-bike.org. If you have any special expertise on running a bike club you’d like to share with St. John’s or have bikes in good condition you don’t need, contact Lisa at lhubbard(at)wellchild.org. To learn more about or donate to St. John’s garden dig program, visit their website.