MANCHESTER, NH – As Anna Thomas recalls it, among the prominent red-flag items as it relates to the health of NH’s largest city, was the fact that over half of city kids were on a free or reduced lunch program. 2012 was the moment in time and Thomas, then the deputy public health director for the city, says the realization was a “tipping point” for herself and others engaged in the Queen City’s health and well-being. She says the good news then, as is the case today, was that there was a lot of energy and passion around creating a healthier city. The not so good news was that much of the work lacked coordination.
Fast forward seven years and Manchester is now among national cities at the forefront of healthy communities work in which city officials, schools, health centers, and others are viewing good health holistically and literally at the neighborhood level. This is based on a successful approach first used in New York in the 1990s called the Harlem Children’s Zone.
“The idea behind the Harlem Children’s Zone project,” says Thomas, “is to concentrate resources on a particular neighborhood in need by examining the key issues, working to address them, and creating a road map for success.”
Thomas, who has been with the Manchester Public Health Department for 25 years and now serves as its director, says that core elements include: scaling the project to serve a neighborhood fully; creating a network of coordinated services which take children from birth to college; fostering a strong community by bringing together residents, health organizations and others; identifying benchmarks and capturing data to track work; building and reinforcing a local can-do culture in which silos are eliminated.
In this model, which is gaining momentum in the city as well as in other cities across the country, services and professionals are integrated into schools.
“By creating access points for children and their families for health and wellness, behavioral health, food and nutrition, disease management and transportation, we’re looking to influence health favorably,” Thomas says.
She shared that a starting point for elementary school students, for instance, was attendance. By creating a culture of attendance, children benefit academically and by extension, their families are connected to social services through the school. She called that initiative undertaken at the Gossler Park and Beech Street schools, “a critical first step to change.”
As the city’s work has continued, so has interest and engagement from local and national foundations.
“As we’re able to provide data around favorable outcomes, we’ve been able to attract prominent funders like the Kresge Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” said Thomas. Local charitable stalwarts in NH like the Bean Foundation, Granite United Way and the NH Charitable Foundation have also stepped up to plate, often in concert with other funders.
To more deeply explore sustainable funding strategies and to look at what potentially lies ahead, the Manchester Health Department is convening a Community Investors forum on June 25 at 9 a.m. at the Derryfield Country Club. Among the featured speakers at the free event will be Dr. Phyllis Meadows, Senior Fellow at Kresge Foundation.
Thomas says the goal of the forum will be to share new data defining Manchester’s current and future neighborhood health and explore innovative funding and financing models from across the country. She stresses that the meeting will truly be a two-way conversation.
“We need to hear from multiple stakeholders and possible funders to get their view as to where we’re at and what lies ahead. Nothing good can happen in a vacuum and this input is critical,” Thomas says. “The synergy around the work has never been better and the collaborations are stronger than ever. There is a true appetite for favorable change and that is exciting.”
To learn more about the Manchester Health Department, please visit the city’s Health Department website.
Community Investors Meeting
Hosted by the City of Manchester Public Health Department
June 25 from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Derryfield Country Club
625 Mammoth Road, Manchester
RSVP to Robin Harper, firstname.lastname@example.org by June 19.