Leading the Charge for Healthier Counties

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Writer  /  Janelle Morrison
Photographer  /  JJ Kaplan

Once again, the vision of Hamilton County resident and trailblazer, Nancy Chance, founder and executive director of the Good Samaritan Network (GSN), has led to the rollout of an unprecedented collaboration of GSN, five major area hospitals and relative area agencies to create the Partnership for a Healthier Hamilton County (PHHC).

As charitable tax-exempt organizations, not-for-profit hospitals are required to provide community benefits, and since 2012, each facility must complete a Community Health Needs Assessment every three years. This assessment must take into account input from persons who represent the broad interests of the community; include input from persons with special knowledge or expertise in public health and they must be made widely available to the public. The PHHC partnering hospitals include Community Health, I.U. Health, Riverview, St.Vincent Health and St. Francis Health. In conjunction with the hospitals and GSN, agencies such as Aspire Indiana, the YMCA of Central Indiana and Fishers, the Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program and WestLink Consulting have created a PHHC advisory council. Their mission is to collaborate across all sectors of the community to advocate for and implement strategies that help to improve the health of residents where they live, work, play and learn.

Chance brought on board two individuals — Janet Gafkjen as director and Holly Wheeler as assistant director — to lead the newly formed PHHC and to focus on building vital relationships throughout Hamilton County and beyond. The needs of surrounding counties, such as Boone, are very similar to those in Hamilton. GSN has worked with pantries and churches in Boone County and will be able to share the PHHC model with their neighboring churches, agencies and food pantries.

Gafkjen’s background is in healthcare, specifically in medical and clinical education and operations management. “The opportunity to offer skillsets from a diverse health-related professional background while sharing a sense of service to others matched well with the PHHC’s mission of collaboration and advocacy with local businesses, social service agencies, healthcare providers, education institutions, and residents in the communities to improve the many aspects of health in Hamilton County,” Gafkjen said.

Wheeler relocated from Ohio with her family and has an extensive background in hospital communications. While in Cincinnati, she coordinated the “Ohio on the Move” project, a statewide initiative in which the mission was to encourage members to cut 100 calories and walk an extra 2,000 steps – about a mile – daily to help combat obesity and physical inactivity.

“When I saw the announcement for this position, I felt that this opportunity would be a good match with my background,” Wheeler said. “Our immediate focus is on communicating our message to a county-wide audience and to several organizations throughout Hamilton County. We want to forge the path for PHHC and generate the awareness that there are great needs within our county, but also that there are resources available for people and families.”

Well-being, substance abuse and mental health are not indicative to just one socioeconomic level background. These are issues of grave importance to every demographic – not just the impoverished.

Recently, Hamilton County has seen a 14 percent increase in juvenile diabetes and a rise in suicide and substance abuse issues, across all demographics. The PHHC council is committed to working through theses issues through its advocating and education to the general public about the issues and the resources that are available.

“Through PHHC, I saw how this partnership was going to help us as a network because our pantries and our agencies are so thread bare on people and resources. By having this collaboration and developing a central repository, we could be the ones generating surveys and collecting data,” Chance explained. “Prior to this group, there was no great data repository for Hamilton County reporting back to the State, and that is why few people have a clear understanding as to what is going on out here until they see the staggering numbers that we have been collecting over the years that depict the reality of our county’s needs.”

Fellow council members weighed in on their organizations’ respective roles and offerings to PHHC. “We feel honored to be a part of this,” Jake Reardon-McSoley, associate executive directorof the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis stated. “I think that it is a transformational opportunity for the entire county, and certainly the YMCA is proud to be a part of helping to lead the way with this team to improve the health of all of our residents across the county. One of our greatest challenges that we are dealing with is childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes. We are seeing a lot of inactivity and children who, unfortunately, are starting life out not appreciating the benefits of health and wellness. It paints a concerning picture as that generation continues to go through school and grows into the next leaders of our community. We will be hosting ‘Healthy Kids Day’ on Saturday, April 25, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Fishers YMCA. It is open to the public, free and focused on getting families and children involved in health classes and exercise together. More details are available at indymca.org.”

Tricia Akers, director of Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program spoke about her organization’s goals for PHHC. “The Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program is authorized by statute and permits the juvenile court judge in every Indiana county to establish early intervention advocates to provide tutors, mentors, and the coordination of services for at-risk children and their families,” Akers said. “The Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program is a proud member of the Partnership for a Healthier Hamilton County. It is our hope that we can assist to collaborate across all sectors of the community to advocate for and implement strategies to help to improve the overall health of our residents.”

One of the greatest challenges that have been identified is transportation for residents and the lack of ability to get to the resources that they so desperately need. Kate Hill-Johnson, MA, Community Engagement, Franciscan St. Francis Health, discussed this issue specifically.

“As part of this council, we want to be a part of serving those most in need by addressing issues such as transportation, preventative health measures, behavioral health and other determinants that decide if the residents are healthy in their community,” Hill-Johnson emphasized. “One of the challenges that we have to focus on the most is transportation and finding ways for people to get to the medical or behavioral health forums that they need if they have challenges in their own lives and lack a vehicle to get there. We are also concerned about the rising suicide and substance abuse rates in our county. We are no exception to these issues that are affecting our families.”

Aspire Indiana a non-profit comprehensive community mental health center serving adults in Boone, Hamilton, Madison and Marion counties, is also serving on the council. “We represent mental health in Hamilton County,” Dianna Huddleston, LCSW, director, Carmel Outpatient Services, Aspire Indiana said. “As we did the hospital assessments for the community, mental health was one of the top five issues. We know that this area is sometimes difficult for people to access and we want to be a part of the solutions for accessibility.”

Duncan Brown, MSW, LCSW, LCAC, director, Noblesville Outpatient Services Aspire Indiana added, “Aspire has been   operating in Hamilton County for over 25 years.   

We want to make sure that when we’re looking at the health care needs of Hamilton County residents that we are also looking at the behavioral needs and how that integrates with primary health care.”

PHHC will launch a litany of programs as they progress including nutrition programs in tandem with GSN and Gleaners Food Bank where there are mobile food services. They are creatively seeking transportation solutions and expanding current or developing outreach programs to better serve the communities. “I have worked with and coordinated the community churches and pantries throughout the county,” Chance concluded. “Members of the churches and volunteers with the pantries are going to the mobile food banks and then they fill tubs with food and necessities. Then they will deliver these tubs to those who are not physically capable of coming out to get it for themselves. We are taking care of them in an indirect way, but inch-by-inch we are making a difference. Hamilton County can be the guiding star to help other people find the navigation to get their communities on board too.”

For more information on PHHC, contact Janet Gafkjen or Holly Wheeler at 317-842-2603.