When Bon Secours Hampton Roads (Va.) Health System’s healthy community initiative began in Norfolk’s East Ocean View neighborhood seven years ago, the prospects for reviving this coastal southeastern Virginia community of 4,500 residents seemed bleak.

Once a destination for beach and amusement park-goers, its gradual decline fostered an environment of crowded apartments, absentee landlords, poverty, crime, drugs, unemployment and dilapidated properties. The community had little access to healthy, fresh foods and primary health care services. Hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes were major but unattended health issues. 

Today, a host of hospital-led programs and services promise residents a healthier future.

“The idea was not for us to come in and tell the community what it needed to do, but to walk alongside them, listen to what they needed and figure out how we could work together to make it happen,” explains Pam Phillips, the health system’s vice president of mission.

Bon Secours’ initial partnership with New Life Christian Center and Hamptons Roads-based Operations Blessing International (OBI) Relief and Development Corp, grew to include partnerships with churches, community centers, the city of Norfolk, the East Ocean View Civic League, restaurants, farms, housing development organizations, universities, military bases and other business and civic groups. The aim: to improve the health and vitality of East Ocean View one block at a time.

“Bon Secours has led the charge,” says Pastor Ken Gerry of the New Life Christian Center. “They have helped make East Ocean View a neighborhood to be proud of.”

For its commitment to the East Ocean View healthy community initiative, the health system earned a 2016 AHA NOVA Award. The award recognizes hospital-led partnerships that are helping to build healthier communities.

“When we talk about partnerships and broad collaborations, it’s not just organizations doing things for people,” says Bon Secours Health System CEO Rich Statuto. “It’s about creating an environment in which we can collectively solve problems and use assets in our community to improve health and quality of life.” He says the collaboration is producing results for the one-square mile community located on a peninsula surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Little Creek.

The initiative really took hold following a series of floods that ravaged the community in the wake of Hurricane Ida in November 2009. OBI and Bon Secours rebuilt and expanded a community storehouse wrecked by the storm.

The storehouse holds food for residents in need, and its rebuilding provided jobs for five men who had been unemployed. More than 40,000 pounds of food were given away during the storehouse’s reopening.

The storm rallied residents and organizations and brought renewed vigor to conversations about cleanup and beautification. The health system organized volunteers from a dozen local community organizations to plant 1,000 azaleas, junipers, spirea shrubs, barberry and holly bushes donated by an area nursery. Volunteers watered and looked after the plants, and this neighbor-helping-neighbor event inspired future cleanup and green-up “block parties.”

Those modest steps led to big changes, says JoAnn Merinar, the health system’s health and wellness coordinator, who planted bushes along with community residents. Neighborhood events like the block parties resulted in continuing conversations, binding friendships and partnerships and new projects.

“Start small but think big,” she says. “Look to what the future can be for the community.”

Harnessing the power of community collaboration, the initiative expanded to include a community garden for fresh food-starved East Ocean View; neighborhood-based “compassion events” that offer free groceries, hot meals and health screenings for disadvantaged families; Passport to Health, a low-to-no-cost six-month, multi-component program focusing of family eating, exercise and lifestyle; and access to dental and primary care through a mobile health unit that also connects patients to follow-up medical and social services.

The community garden uses hydroponics powered by solar energy to grow fresh vegetables such as peaches, figs, tomatoes, eggplants, squash, cucumbers and peppers. Residents work alongside Bon Secours staff, and pick produce as needed.

Bon Secours started the Passport to Health program in 2013 to address the community’s high rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Once enrolled in the program, participants agree to make “healthy decisions” over the course of six months as they attend biweekly classes. The program includes educational classes, cooking demonstrations and farm-to-table produce, along with exercise classes.

Participants get an overall health assessment measuring cholesterol, glucose and other areas. After the six months is up, they are brought back and results are compared.

Passport to Health so far has helped more than 100 participants shed more than 600 pounds. Twenty-one residents in last year’s class saw a decrease in their blood pressure and several had lower cholesterol scores.

“When we saw a change in our blood pressure, it made us want to do more,” says Laura Rush, who participated in Passport to Health two years ago. She and husband Kenneth lost 35 pounds in six months. “We don’t even drink soda anymore, just a lot more water,” she adds.

A long-term and wide ranging commitment to East Ocean View has earned the community’s trust and has been key to the initiative’s success, Phillips says.

“Bon Secours is French for good health,” she notes. “We believe we are good health for those in need and that certainly is true in this community.”

Interested in applying for the 2017 AHA NOVA Award? The deadline is Dec. 2. Click here to learn more.