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By Mariya Greeley
While it would be easy to presume that hereditary factors and medical interventions play the leading role in determining our health, it turns out that ZIP codes may be more important than genetic codes. In fact, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, “clinical care impacts only 20 percent of county-level variation in health outcomes, while social determinants of health affect as much as 50 percent.” Health happens out in the community — where we live, work, and play. Thus, the collective well-being of towns and cities depends on the accessibility of safe housing, nutritious food, education, and more.
From Boston-area nonprofits dedicated to helping the unhoused to meaningful corporate giving, these organizations demonstrate how shaping community conditions makes a difference.
Women’s Lunch Place: Individualized support for women
A woman might initially go to Women’s Lunch Place — a day shelter and advocacy center for women experiencing hunger, poverty, or homelessness in Boston — for a restaurant-style meal. During a trip to the community dining tables, she might hear about the shelter’s many wellness offerings from another woman. When she’s comfortable, she might try a substance use recovery program or one of the other behavioral health support services Women’s Lunch Place offers.
“Our mission is to meet each woman where she’s at, to honor the dignity of each woman, and to help them access an individualized service plan to hopefully build their self-sustaining skills,” says Jennifer Hanlon Wigon, executive director of Women’s Lunch Place. Hanlon Wigon estimates that Women’s Lunch Place, which opened its doors more than 40 years ago, serves about 250 women six days a week and about 2,000 women each year through its broad range of programs and services.
Building relationships is a foundation across the shelter’s programs. “That’s community health; it’s really knowing your guest population and understanding that they’re each unique and building those relationships to try to work with them,” Hanlon Wigon says. “Substance use disorder breeds in isolation, so having a community can really be impactful in the process of recovery and health.”
Hanlon Wigon notes partnerships with other local organizations also help drive their success. The shelter collaborates with groups like Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Rize Massachusetts, St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, and Victory Programs to be ready with the support their guests need at the moment they need it.
“These women are incredible,” Hanlon Wigon notes. “You see the resilience, and sometimes the humor, and the mutual support that they offer each other. And we see success.”
Community Servings: From kitchen to community health
Community Servings is a nonprofit food and nutrition program serving Massachusetts and Rhode Island locals with critical and chronic illnesses. Once a week, the organization delivers five days’ worth of medically tailored lunches, dinners, and snacks. The meals are made from scratch in Community Servings’ kitchen using local ingredients tailored to each patient’s specific dietary needs.
“Most of our patients have more than one illness and therefore more than one dietary restriction,” says David Waters, CEO of Community Servings, which can make cooking their own meals overwhelming in addition to other challenges they’re navigating. “In many cases, we’re also feeding their whole family because we recognize that if you bring one meal to a parent, they’re going to give that to their child…You need to take a holistic viewpoint of that family and what’s going on in that household,” he says.
In 2023, Community Servings is projected to provide 1.2 million meals to more than 6,000 people facing illnesses like cancer, HIV, diabetes, kidney failure, and cardiac disease.
The organization has found that food can be a powerful health care intervention. A study found a significant drop in medical incidents among people participating in Community Servings. Not only does this help those individuals and their families, but the health care system as a whole. “If we prevent one night in the hospital, we save the system enough money to feed you for six months,” Waters says.
Community Servings is adding two new focuses to their medically tailored meals program this year — one for pediatric patients and one for people with high-risk pregnancies.
“Showing up at someone’s house and saying the community has not forgotten you, we see you, and we’re bringing this gift of food when you need it,” Waters says. “That’s very powerful and empowering.”
Point32Health: In the business of community health
Point32Health, a not-for-profit health and well-being company serving Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, and Connecticut, has a multi-pronged approach to community health. In addition to increasing health care access for members, the company encourages employees to support nonprofit organizations addressing the social determinants of health through a robust corporate citizenship program.
A first-in-the-region dementia care coordinator program built in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association has helped connect more than 4,000 Point32Health members with education and community resources to navigate an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. A new collaboration with Included Health helps LGBTQ+ members find culturally affirming primary care providers, explore gender-affirming surgery, and access behavioral health care and other critical support.
“We center our work on what matters to the community,” says Kristin Lewis, the executive vice president and chief public and community affairs officer at Point32Health, the parent company of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan. “We collaborate with and learn from nonprofit organizations, understanding that those most affected by inequities are in the best position to define the problem, design solutions, and determine success.”
And Point32Health employees consistently step up to support community nonprofits. In 2022, employees spent more than 9,300 hours volunteering, partially because of the 24 hours of paid time off to volunteer Point32Health offers each year. Point32Health and its Foundation contributed more than $15 million to community organizations in the region, including grants to fund solutions related to healthy aging, access to healthy food, and behavioral health. In 2023, Point32Health was named a Civic 50 company by Points of Light for its social responsibility for the third year.
In a recent survey, 90 percent of Point32Health employees who responded said they feel proud to work for a company that cares about the community.
“We live our purpose, ‘to guide and empower healthier lives for everyone,’ each and every day,” Lewis says. “We can’t do this work alone — and don’t. When we work in collaboration, we can tackle issues that are greater than anything any one nonprofit, government agency, or company can solve alone. We are proud to be part of the solution.”
Point32Health is a not-for-profit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Throughout all of life’s stages and challenges, our family of companies inclusive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan support members and their families with whole-health benefits and solutions.
Sponsored by Point32Health
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This way to better health (Point32Health)