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Building a Culture of Health, Wellness & Accountability in Affordable Housing

Learn how the work, commitment and forward thinking of one resident services manager is empowering residents in CPDC’s Southeast D.C. Arbor View community to change their minds, circumstances and lifestyles.

A 5-Part Blog Series

Teachers weren’t showing up. Kids needed help. There were high school students who couldn’t read, that were about to graduate. Many needed to go back to the basics.

After Meadowbrook’s temporary closing in 2007, Cora began to work with residents at CPDC’s Southeast Washington D.C. Southern Ridge community as an assistant resident services manager; she was promoted to Resident Services Manager in 2009.

At the time of her arrival in the Southern Ridge (now Arbor View) community, Cora recounts the outlook for youth was not good. Many were poor readers and the academic reinforcement programs in place were inconsistent and not working.

Arbor View Greening Day | CPDC | May 16, 2015To address the issue, she began planning programs and camps focused on reading skills. Soon, youth began to show up and participate and in the summer of 2007 Cora’s inaugural camp there drew 40 kids—more than double what camps in previous years had attracted.

“The community center wasn’t big enough in the past to hold everyone, but we made it work, we had fun and we learned,” Cora said. “I also learned that the only way to get to the kids is to get to the parents. So I started reaching out to parents, and they became involved too.”

In getting to know residents, establishing trusting relationships and observing challenges in the community, Cora embarked on what would from then forward be a focus of her work: health and wellness.

Located in an area of Washington, D.C. severely lacking fresh, healthy food options, access to affordable organic vegetables and fruits for Arbor View residents is limited. Worse, many predominantly African American residents in the community suffer from diet-related diseases. When residents want to eat out, nutritious choices are tough to come by, making improved managed healthcare a tough feat.

But while access to healthy meals is a challenge, Cora says that’s just one piece of a more insidious problem.

In her decade working with low-income, urban residential communities, she’s recognized an even bigger obstacle to healthy lifestyles for many residents: mindsets, culture CPDC summer camp in SE Washington DC - 0013and attitudes.

With this knowledge, Cora emphasizes that her approach to resident health and wellness is not just about food and diet, but the entire mindset around managed care and the right for all communities to have access to nutritious foods.

“Cora has an understanding of the food desert in Ward 8 and her activities have created more access at Arbor View and changed resident attitudes on health management,” said Daynna Dixon, a Regional Resident Service Manager at CPDC. “Many people don’t even realize they have a right to food justice—the right to access. Access is bigger than providing ‘more’ of something. It’s also about education, financial and economic support.”

Inspiring New Habits

Cora’s work at Arbor View around health and wellness has the end-goal of getting residents to take a ‘big picture’ approach to managing their health by making smart choices daily.

As lifelong poor food choices can manifest in medical conditions prevalent among African American residents including high blood pressure, diabetes, hypertension and obesity, Cora makes it a priority to encourage preventative care. Through partnerships with United Medical Center and Providence Hospitals, residents have benefited from diabetes care sessions, dental hygiene workshops and free exams, sessions on alternative healthcare approaches such as meditation and a 12-week curriculum-based stress management and health support group on how stress directly affects health outcomes and methods to effectively manage it.

There’s also the ‘Journey to the Next Phase’ class, a program teaching women spiritual, physical and mental self-care. To culminate that class, 14 women from Arbor View will attend a retreat in West Virginia this summer.

Expanding Palettes

A general lack of exposure to many fruits, vegetables and cooking methods is an issue for some of Cora’s residents. To introduce residents to new, healthy food options, she regularly hosts cooking demonstrations, teaching residents how to prepare foods in season and those available in the Arbor View Food Pantry—foods that residents would be inclined to pass up for not being familiar with or knowing how to prepare an item.

Arbor View Greening Day | CPDC | May 16, 2015“The parents are changing. We learn together as I’ve introduced them to foods even I had never had,” Cora explained. “I’ll buy something I’ve never purchased, like a tomatillo or turnips, then after researching how to prepare them will do a food demonstration. When you break it down, cook it, and get residents exposed to new foods, it encourages healthier choices and the ability to explore even a vegetarian lifestyle.”

In addition to self-hosting cooking demos for families, the Capital Area Food Bank has hosted cooking classes for children. Through an annual partnership with the Washington Youth Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum, kids get to see the process of food growth—from harvesting to plate.

“Most children here have little experience with fresh foods,” Cora said. “To get to work in a garden then stir fry the foods into a meal is a meaningful way to get them involved in how to eat healthy.”

To provide adult residents with a similar hands-on learning experience, Cora brought a six-week series of classes to Arbor View, ‘A Taste of African Heritage,’ that explored how to use traditional herbs and spices to season food and the preparation of whole food staples including greens, whole grains, beans and rice, tubers, stews, fruits and vegetables.

“Through her commitment, relationships and partnerships forged, Cora has singlehandedly created a culture of health and wellness at Arbor View,” Dixon said. “The transition she was able to make from serving as a police officer to being in complete contribution to communities and children is amazing.”

To read Part 3, click here.

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