As he works with others to help breathe new life into his struggling city of Niagara Falls, Brian Archie often thinks about the house on 13th Street where his grandparents once lived.
James and Ada Williams were among the first African Americans from the "Jim Crow South" to move into the North End neighborhood in the late 1940s. Their home became a place where people gathered to talk, eat and pray. The couple helped raise lots of kids from the surrounding blocks, and helped start Mount Zion Baptist Church.
A nearby community center, shuttered for the last dozen years, is among the vestiges of that time a half-century gone, when the Falls had roughly twice as many residents, and Canadians across the Niagara River envied the American tourist district.
Archie believes that the well-being of city residents has roots in such decay.
“That old community center is a big detriment to the neighborhood, a sign that people don’t care," he said. "It’s hard to break people of that kind of despair.”
Archie is among the volunteer leaders of Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative, a grassroots group designed to take aim at a community that in recent years has found itself near the bottom of New York State health and wellness rankings.
The collaborative was born out of a task force launched by Mayor Paul Dyster in 2009, after a state health commission urged Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital and St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston to discuss a possible merger.
Talks broke down amid concerns over autonomy of the city's hospital. They also underlined the pressing health challenges the impoverished city faces. Collaboration leaders aim to tackle those challenges using resident-led projects that address poor eating habits and other unhealthy behaviors, improve the city housing stock, and build more partnerships with others who can help get the job done.
"We would love to see this structure happening in other places," said Jessica Thomas, a program manager with Population Health Collaborative, a regional public health planning agency.
The agency, once called the P2 Collaborative, serves eight Western New York counties – including Erie, Chautauqua, Niagara and Cattaraugus – which finished 57-60, respectively, out of 62 counties statewide in the latest county rankings for health outcomes.
“I think we have something really special going here with residents building their capacity to lead, knowing how to engage others, and we have a critical mass of residents and projects now," said Shelley Hirshberg, the former Falls task force and P2 leader who helped the Falls collaborative get up and running.
The collaborative in late 2015 hired Krista Ehasz, its first paid project coordinator, to oversee the creation of a growing number of projects designed to change the landscape of Niagara Falls one event, one property, one block at a time.
Projects in recent weeks have included a daddy-daughter dance, "Hattitude Tea Party," and "Snow Much Fun" fitness and health fair for families.
[RELATED: See a photo gallery of "Snow Much Fun"]
Leaders look to involve residents in projects designed to improve the city environment, address poverty, and blur the city's racial and cultural divides.
“When you are in survival mode, you’re not necessarily taking care of your health and the health of the community,” said Sarah Obot, one of four volunteer "change agents" who make up the collaborative leadership.
She and the others know they have their work cut out for them.
Nearly half of city resident live below the poverty line or struggle financially, according to the John R. Oishei Foundation and University at Buffalo Regional Institute. More than half of city rental units are substandard. Roughly 5,000 renters pay more than 30 percent of their overall income on lodging.
The city also is a key reason why Niagara County falls so low in annual County Health Rankings, the latest of which was released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The county ranked 59th of 62 counties in New York State when it comes to health outcomes – and 61st in longevity. Adult smoking, adult obesity, teen births and physical inactivity all fell above the state average.
Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative is taking an intentional approach to address health outcomes, Odot said. Leaders have worked to better understand the city's past and find practical tools to use going forward on projects.
They have worked with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a New York City psychiatrist, as well as the University of Orange group from Orange, N.J., which both study "urban alchemy,” and how inequity in cities leads to poor health outcomes. “There are dividers put in place in cities," Archie said, "and we're learning how we can overcome them.”
Part of that involves addressing the social determinants of health.
"We come back to the fact that people understand they're supposed to visit their physician once a year," Thomas said, "but if they can't make time because they're caring for their children at home, or they don't have transportation, or because all they feed their kid is a canned, processed meal – because they can't afford fresh foods or veggies – it doesn't matter. They live in the now."
THE BIG BREAK
Nearly $700,000 has been earmarked for the Falls collaborative during the last three years, the vast majority from the New York State Health Foundation Healthy Neighborhoods Fund Initiative.
The initiative focused on six communities in need that wanted to find new, more effective ways to address perennial health disparities. The initiative in 2015 gave six communities $2 million to split over two years. Along with the Falls, they included the Brownville neighborhood in Brooklyn, East Harlem, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Near Westside of Syracuse, and Plattsburgh. Much of that money has been used to improve access to healthy foods.
Archie and others used some of that money to start gardens and cooking classes for youths.
"It was successful but what we wanted to do with the next round of funding was to branch it out a lot," and involve more people, Ehasz said.
The foundation added another $300,000 to be used through 2020 on civic engagement – at least one-quarter of which must go to resident-driven projects. The Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, along with United Healthcare, an insurer focused on low-income residents, poured in another $70,000 for similar purposes.
Thomas, the Population Health Collaborative project manager, said the goal of such efforts is to meet people where they are and design appropriate programs. "Instead of telling people to go to a service," she said, "we're trying to bring services to a community."
She gave the example of a successful diabetes program at the Mount St. Mary's Health Center in Niagara Falls, in which participants were provided bus tokens and offered a meal during classes, as well as gift cards to Tops Markets for successful completion.
Thomas said this kind of work has started in poor neighborhoods but that its themes should instruct middle-income and affluent communities, too.
She co-leads the Healthy Behaviors Work Group, one of five such groups in the Falls collaborative. The others are called Resident-Led Projects, Healthy Behaviors, Innovative Partnerships, and Healthy Food, Healthy People.
More than 200 city residents and nearly 50 partner organizations are involved in the work groups.
"We meet people where they are and put boots to the pavement,” said Keyona Dunn, another of the "change agents" appointed in 2017 to help train and work with as many of the five groups as they would like.
Project Green Space was one of the earliest efforts that emerged from the collaborative. Charles Harris – tired of the vacant, overgrown lot across from his Weston Avenue home – teamed up with Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo in 2016 to get control of the parcel and start crowdfunding at ioby.org for matching funds to beautify the space.
The collaborative manages the money and Harris focuses on the project. Last summer, he arranged to hire six teens to clean up the lot; build a walking path, four raised-bed gardens and seating; and maintain the property. The young workers came from The Connection, a parenthood/teen drop-in center where Harris works.
"We didn't ask him to take on seven kids," Obot said. "He did that on his own."
His peers noticed.
Archie was among about a dozen people who built gardens in the Packard Court and North End neighborhoods.
Dunn started "Wish Mentoring," a twice-monthly, after-school program for middle school girls. Up next: teaching free yoga classes to local youth and starting a YouTube channel to share the lessons they're learning.
Last summer, the collaborative hosted its first annual Walk the Falls, a free event in which more than 200 people made their way from downtown to Whirlpool State Park, and ended their journey at a small health fair.
Thomas' committee is working with GObike Buffalo and its executive director, Justin Booth, to help develop a Complete Streets policy to improve pedestrian and bike safety near elementary schools, starting with the North End.
Collaborative leaders also are working to help existing groups become more vibrant and efficient. Obot, for instance, has helped Ray of Hope successfully carry out more events and bring more people to the support group for women who have experienced the loss of a loved one, job or relationship. She also helps lead a continuing effort to revamp the 91st Street Park with improved sidewalks, playground equipment and picnic tables.
"Everybody has assets in different areas of life and the more one is exposed to those assets, the more likely the person is to be a successful leader, the more likely to be active in school," Obot said, "and in turn they will be less likely to engage in risky behavior."
The coalition also has a speakers' bureau that includes people in recovery who want to share their testimony.
"We have a big tent here," Hirshberg said. “I think we have something really special going here with residents building their capacity to lead, knowing how to engage others, and we have a critical mass of residents and projects now. The vision is to make it bigger and bigger so that ultimately, you can tip the scales and give power to the people to help them understand how to improve their neighborhoods.”
WHY NIAGARA FALLS?
Health foundations are among those helping the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative. The need shows in the numbers. Niagara County ranked 59th out of the 62 New York State counties in the 2018 U.S. County Health Rankings released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Niagara Falls is part of the reason why. Here’s a breakdown:
Length of life: 61
There were 7,700 premature deaths per 100,000 people in Niagara County during the Robert Wood Johnson ranking period, compared with a statewide average of 5,300. The rate of deaths among African Americans (13,400) was nearly twice that of whites, according to the report. (Longevity was calculated by determining the years of life lost before age 75 during a three-year period, then multiplying by 100,000).
Health behaviors: 53
Adult smoking, adult obesity, teen births and physical inactivity were above state average.
Clinical care: 46
The ratio of primary care doctors to residents, 2,260:1, is more than twice that of the state average; the rate of dentists, at 1,930:1, is almost twice the average.
Social and economic factors: 44
Unemployment, children in single-family households and injury deaths fell at about the state average.
Physical environment: 52
The level of air pollution and percentage of workers who drive alone to their jobs (87 percent) are well above the state average.
CREATE A HEALTHIER NIAGARA FALLS COLLABORATIVE LEADERS
Krista Ehasz: The project coordinator worked at a dropout prevention program at Niagara Community College before being hired in late 2015 to lead the collaborative.
Shelley Hirshberg: The collaborative board chairwoman is a leadership coach and ambassador of the Health Doers Network. She once led the P2 Collaborative, a regional health care planning group. A skilled grant writer, Mayor Paul Dyster asked her to lead a city health care task force and to start the collaborative.
CO-CHAIRS AND 'CHANGE AGENTS'
Brian Archie: Works in patient accounting at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. He is pursuing a bachelor’s in business, with a focus on project management, and is among change agents focused on public deliberation and civic engagement. He also chairs the city Human Rights Commission. He lives in the North End.
Keyona Dunn: Has worked with the elderly, mentally ill, and pregnant and parenting mothers for 11 years. She lives in the North End neighborhood.
Sarah Obot: A health educator and former program coordinator for maternal infant health initiatives with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. She lives in LaSalle.
Evelyn Harris: This early task force member has worked as a certified nurse's aide for nearly four decades and has helped lead the hospital's health care union.
Wanted: The collaborative seeks six “street team members” to help Falls residents learn more about, and participate in, collaborative events and activities. The six-hour-per-week job pays $300 per month. Those interested should email a resume and two references to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit healthierniagarafalls.org or call 777-1034.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon