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Village of Promise Health Outreach: The Church at Work

By Carmen K. Samuels, MSN, Retired RN, PNP United Church of Christ of La Mesa
     In 2002, the San Diego County Health Department sought to “close the gap” in health status and health care delivery between minority groups and the wider San Diego community.  I was then a member of Christian Fellowship Congregational UCC in Southeastern San Diego.  Rev. Arthur Cribbs, our pastor, knew some in the congregation had an interest in “health outreach,” as did he.  A meeting between two administrators of the County Health Department and five members of Christian Fellowship was arranged and a committee of twelve, later called the Health Outreach Committee (HOC), was formed (I thought of them as “the 12 apostles”).

     The group decided on mental health, with emphasis on depression, as its focus; selected a coordinator and identified both potential partners/coalition members and our “target area – the 92114 area code.
A letter was sent to those potential partners.  Excerpts follow:

      “For some time now, members of Christian Fellowship Congregational United Church of Christ have had a vision of improving the health status of residents of San Diego Central Region.  We believe the Church holds great potential for healing both body and spirit.  We hope to establish a collaborative, sustainable, community-based outreach to facilitate this vision.

     “…mental health issues, particularly depression, represent a significant problem that often accompany other health conditions in the minority and/or underserved community.  For this reason, our first effort will address depression among teens and adults.  We hope to extend the scope of our outreach as time goes on.

     “We have identified you as a “potential partner” in this endeavor.  We believe your ideas, information and assistance in a number of ways will be crucial to the success…
“A forum is planned to start a dialogue and plan for future actions.

     After the Forum, and our conversations with pastors and heads of community organizations, several partners signed on.  Five churches in the targeted area – a Southern Baptist, an Independent Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Church of God in Christ and a Church of Christ – became partners.  Community agencies included Comprehensive Health Center, Family Health Centers of San Diego, Neighborhood House Association, Care View Medical Group and Urban League of San Diego.  Each group named a representative to serve on the HOC.  Discussions with the Christian Fellowship Community Outreach Foundation (COF) a 501(c) (3) organization, led to the Health Outreach becoming a COF program.  Program planning, a pilot depression screening, community forums on depression, and dissemination of literature on depression and other mental health issues followed.  Financing was provided from donations by some partners and members of HOC and a $2,000 grant from UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. 

     In 2005, HOC sent an application to The California Endowment (TCE).  Excerpts from it follow:

     “…If funding is obtained, the plan is to increase activities in the churches that would lead to change in knowledge and behavior and ultimately to measurable indicators of improved health.  Depression screening, dissemination of literature and educational forums during this pilot, were good indicators of interest and appreciation…Malcolm X Library, one of our partners, was the venue for two forums.

     “The objectives of the project during the 18-month grant period are:

     “Establish and maintain referral relationships with mental health providers…Family Health Centers of San Diego, Neighborhood House Association, Comprehensive Health Center and Church of the Nazarene Health Promotion Center.

     “Disseminate at least 5000 brochures, fliers, booklets, leaflets on depression and related conditions e.g. HIV/AIDS, or diabetes.

     “Convene at least four community educational forums on depression, its characteristics and symptoms and available… especially to those without health insurance.

     “Conduct at least six depression screening activities of individuals ages 13 and up and facilitate self-referral of individuals…for further assessment and care.

     “Design survey and evaluation forms…obtain data to measure the effectiveness…(and) to assess pastors’ perception of church members’ knowledge and attitude on matters of mental health and depression.”

     Our final report to TCE on the $50,000 grant received confirmed we had achieved all of the grant objectives.

     Professional analysis of the data from screening 375 adults and teens corroborated findings reported in some literature of significant moderate or chronic depression in minority communities.  Another finding was “depression prevalence among teens appears to parallel depression as it exists among adults.”  This finding with other observation led to the pursuit of a project involving youth.  

     In 2007, based on experiences of our Health Outreach, including the fact that some potential donors did not fund “faith based” programs, HOC decided to move to a community based program and the name was changed to the Village of Promise Health Outreach.  This started another exciting leg of the journey which embraces a “collective mentoring” program for middle school children whose parents are incarcerated.  

     The Board of Directors of VOP pursued and received official non-profit status from the office of the California Secretary of State.  The Black Health Network agreed to be the “fiscal agent” for VOP and served without charge until their local office closed.  At that point Social Advocates for Youth (SAY – a large local social service agency) became the fiscal agent.  By then the decision was made by VOP to launch a “collective mentoring” project for children of incarcerated parents.  The statistic that 60-70% of children with parents who have been incarcerated also experience incarceration in the juvenile or adult justice system was a compelling reason to work with these vulnerable children, with a mission of breaking the cycle.

     Networking with partners and potential partners was time consuming, but rewarding.  Pastors of our partner congregations were most supportive, with one stating “you may no longer be faith based, but you are people of faith and must be faithful to the mission God has given you.”  In March 2009 we enrolled the first class of five at a luncheon meeting.  Currently there are 23 children enrolled.

     So what does this collective mentoring project look like? A village model, rather than a one on one mentorship model, is used.   The children, mentors, and parents/legal guardians are part of the village.  Eligible children are referred to VOP by schools.  Currently there are three participating middle schools, as the target grades for the project are 6, 7, 8, and 9 and the target area is Southeastern San Diego.  An interview is arranged between a child’s caretaker and a VOP representative, and a number of forms are signed to enroll the child.  Currently workshops dealing with emotional and social issues of the children are held on the 3rd Saturdays and “Expanded Horizon” outings on the first Saturdays.  Outings are designed to include “behind the scene” experiences.  Objectives for the outings allow exposure to the wider community and provide early orientation to potential career opportunities.  A five day summer camp provides a safe environment for recreation, as well as building on skills and concepts introduced in workshops throughout the year.  In addition there are planned workshops for parents/guardians every 3 months and a summer picnic and Christmas holiday celebration for the “villagers” and their families.  An “Alumni” program for tenth to twelfth graders will be launched next school years to facilitate continued contact and guidance. 

     Support for the project has been through individual donations, small grants, co-sponsorships, numerous volunteer hours, financial donations from Torrey Pines Christian Church (TPCC) and UCC of La Mesa.  In-kind support has come from Encanto Southern Baptist Church, which provides a meeting place for activities, and 61st and Division Church of Christ, which provides printing and meeting space.  Co-sponsorships include Neighborhood House Association for the summer camp and TPCC for two events of hiking and surfing.  Staff facilitators’ per diem pay is below market value.  O’Farrell Community School Family Support Service provides a mail box for VOP and continuing exchange of information regarding children’s academic and social status.

     The wish list of the VOP Board of Directors includes pro bono grant writers, funds to employ a part or fulltime director, a per diem coordinator for the Alumni phase of the project, funds to provide bus tokens for students in the Alumni program to participate in community programs, and volunteers to serve on the Board.  If the spirit moves you, the reader, to assist in any way so the project can continue, please communicate with Carmen Samuels, 2657 Citronella Ave, Lemon Grove 91945, 619-337-3730, cksamuels@cox.net, website: VOPSANDIEGO.ORG

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