Building Community Capacity
How do we measure the health of a community? Is it wealth-based? Maybe a healthy community is one wherein there are enough jobs paying a sufficiently high wage to sustain a family.
Maybe a healthy community has easily accessible healthcare resources, or access to public transportation to make getting to and from work easy for those who need it.
Surely a healthy community embraces the idea that preparing children to learn is essential to a brighter future. Undoubtedly, a healthy community must see to the care and nurturing of our senior citizens, shouldn't it?
In order to effectively measure a community's overall health, all of these factors, and many more, need to be carefully analyzed.
Of late, Fredericktonians seem fixated on the matter of immigration, and all of the ancillary issues that arise from the conversation. English language primacy, the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287-G program, and the loud opposition to both of these concepts are driving our energy and debate.
Immigration is but one small aspect to this measurement of community health. An important aspect, though. An examination of the changing nature of the Key Parkway and Hillcrest neighborhoods over the last 10 years makes the case for a more systematic view of the health of that particular area.
If you could fly over the Hillcrest neighborhood, you'd be gazing down on one of Frederick's most transitory and complex residential communities. Ten years ago, the mix of single family, duplexes and townhouses were home to the economic mix you'd typically expect. Young families and single adults lived in the multi-family dwellings, while older, more-established families peopled the single family homes.
Everything they wanted – or needed – was in easy reach. They had a variety of shopping, including the bustling Fredericktowne Mall, plenty of restaurants, and essential services all within a walk or short drive.
The public school, Hillcrest Elementary, was a model for the community, overseen by a virtual legend in velvet-gloved discipline, the beloved Carol Young.
Medical offices, filled with busy practitioners of all stripe, saw a steady stream of paying patients, almost all of whom had access to health insurance that at least insured a flow of co-pay income for the doctor while awaiting the snail-paced reimbursement from the dreaded insurance carrier.
Today's Hillcrest is a much different place. Almost unrecognizable today, this area is largely populated by immigrants from several South and Central American countries, people who have found comfort in numbers and being surrounded by those who's cultural and familial relationship mirror their own.
Are they all legal and documented American citizens or visitors? Not a chance. On the other hand, are they all here illegally? Again, no way.
Setting aside the question of status, one cannot avoid the question of services, those demanded by a population without regard to language or legal status. The federal government has already settled those questions pertaining to emergency healthcare and public education. We must provide them.
I'm guessing that one could take that same flyover I described earlier, this time with some overlay laminate. One sheet of laminate could highlight the number of times a police officer has been dispatched to this area. Another could highlight the number of times an ambulance has been sent. A third laminate could highlight the city living code violations issued. Another laminate sheet could reflect the underperforming test scores. Another could reflect the concentration of medical assistance clients, those issued food stamps or WIC assistance, and the percentage of low birth-weight babies.
No, I'm not advocating for illegal immigrants. I'm not even suggesting that we don't provide enough services. I'm using this imagery to reflect the fact that human needs, particularly those that are not addressed successfully, have serious and significant ramifications and repercussions for the whole community.
Back to the flyover example. Frequent police dispatches to one area burdens the patrol shift for the whole city. Frequent ambulance dispatches have the same effect. City livability and housing code violations point to a systemic and dangerous set of conditions that, if left untreated, place a whole community at risk.
Underperforming test scores in a place like Hillcrest Elementary have two serious impacts. The first is that the public school system must load up on programs and resources to try to address the issue, or risk federal No Child Left Behind solutions.
The second is that those children who leave Hillcrest join other students from more affluent communities and higher-performing schools at the middle and high school level. Do you really believe for a second that those students, blended in from Hillcrest, actually all rise in academic performance to the level of the other kids from different parts of the feeder pattern?
No way, José! In many cases, they have the affect of acting as the lowest common denominator, lowering that overall standard as additional resources now have to be plowed into these other schools. Are they to blame? No more than they are to blame for being born.
The same logic applies to the public health aspect. We know that parents without healthcare don't obtain the necessary pre-natal care to insure a healthy birth. Frederick Memorial Hospital has opened a free pre-natal clinic at the hospital, but a patient has to get there.
A healthy baby has a much better chance of becoming a healthy child. A healthy child, given the appropriate early learning advantages, has a much better chance of becoming a good academic performer. A good student has a much better chance of becoming a successful and contributing member of society, breaking the bonds of their past.
While we fight over deporting illegal immigrants who break local law, we also ought to spend some time and energy discussing the capacity of our community to provide these essential services. If we don't, the capacity that we failed to build will be reflected in higher taxes, longer waits, and poor overall measures of the health of our whole community.