Humana Foundation Executive Director Virginia K. Judd, right, and Louisville Urban League CEO Sadiqa Reynolds announce a $225,000 grant the LUL.
Humana Foundation Executive Director Virginia K. Judd, right, and Louisville Urban League CEO Sadiqa Reynolds announce a $225,000 grant the LUL.

The Humana Foundation has granted $225,000 to the Louisville Urban League to improve the mental, physical and emotional health of residents in four disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The grant will allow the Urban League’s outreach workers to connect families with community resources to get health insurance, participate in healthy activities, and gain greater access to healthy foods.

The effort will focus on four neighborhoods — California, Russell, Shawnee and Portland — which are among the city’s most distressed. For example, life expectancy in the Portland neighborhood is 68.3 years, a fraction lower than in war-torn Iraq and about nine years below the Louisville average, according to the Louisville Metro Health Equity Report from 2014.

Three of the neighborhoods have among the highest diabetes-related, cancer-related and homicide death rates among the city’s 24 neighborhoods. More than half of the residents in the Russell neighborhood live in poverty, as do more than a third in California and Portland — compared to 13.3 percent for Louisville as a whole. The areas also have among the highest violent crime and unemployment rates and the least access to healthy foods.

Virginia K. Judd, executive director of the Humana Foundation, said that health plays a big role in many other parts of people’s lives, including success in education and opportunities for employment.

“If you’re healthier, then you really do have greater opportunities to improve your quality of life,” Judd said.

The Louisville Urban League already has shown a passion for and competence in helping people with challenges such as finding affordable housing, securing job training and identifying educational opportunities, Judd said. It made sense to tap the organization to expand its role to also engage families to improve their mental, physical and emotional health.

Measuring the impact

Humana will gauge the grant’s impact through surveys in which people report the number of days on which they feel mentally or physically unhealthy, said Mike Bellissimo, the company’s enterprise vice president for commercial service operations and a Louisville Urban League director.

The company is doing the same measurements for Louisville as a whole as part of its effort to improve the health of the communities it serves by 20 percent by 2020.

Humana Foundation logoGood health comes from good genes, good behavior and good luck, Bellissimo said, and people should not suffer a lower life expectancy just because they are unlucky and live in a distressed neighborhood.

At the same time, he said, better health cannot be achieved overnight and also requires that people become their own best advocates, which means they should take steps to improve their diet, exercise more and avoid unhealthy behaviors such as smoking.

That’s one of the reasons why the Urban League has called the new effort “It Starts With Me.”

Louisville Urban League President and CEO Sadiqa Reynolds said that if people do not get the help they need to improve their physical or mental health, they cannot help others. People have to start focusing on themselves first, much like they are told on airplanes to put oxygen masks on themselves first before helping others.

“I hope that people understand that you are the first line of defense,” she said.

Connecting communities with health resources

The Louisville Urban League has five outreach coordinators who go into community spaces, barbershops and churches in those neighborhoods to help people achieve social and economic stability. The grant will expand the coordinators’ focus to include health and will allow the League to add additional staffers, said Lyndon E. Pryor, the League’s director for health education and policy.

Louisville Urban League logoThe coordinators also will begin going door to door to help people secure health insurance including Medicare and Medicaid, connect children with after-school activities, provide information about free physical activities such as walking groups, and assist families in finding sources of affordable fresh and healthy foods, Pryor said.

Health is related to factors including joblessness, education and the availability of community resources, all of which are driven by — and need to be remedied by — policy, he said.

Reynolds told Insider Louisville after the presentation that structural racism, joblessness and other issues are weighing down many people, especially African-Americans, and are leaving them in a state of perpetual traumatic stress disorder.

And after a week like last week, in which the nation struggled with the shootings of two African-Americans by white police officers in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, La., and the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, Reynolds said it was nice to be able to present some good news.

Those who want to learn more about It Starts With Me should email Pryor at [email protected]

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.