Public Housing Leaders Improve Health and Wellness

by Ellie Rossiter:

When Emily Claassen was a graduate student at San Francisco State University, she took a class that produced a research report focused on peer-to-peer health strategies in HOPE SF, which was used to develop the HOPE SF Peer Health Leadership Program, launched in 2013.

Soon after graduating, Emily was hired to start up and coordinate Peer Health Leadership Program at Sunnydale in Visitacion Valley – no small task.

Emily Claassen (pictured forefront) is the Program Manager for the Peer Health Leadership Program at Sunnydale (in Visitacion Valley). HOPE SF’s Peer Health Leadership Program hires resident leaders to address pressing health and social issues because they are trusted role models for other community members.

Creating a Culture of Wellness
Sunnydale’s peer health program is co-located at the Health & Wellness Center, which is inside a vacant housing unit. “The first thing I did was get some discarded tables from the old Laguna Honda Hospital facility, so that we could have a workspace. Then I hired the residents to do the hard work of improving health,” said Emily.

Getting healthy is not easy in HOPE SF. There is very little access to fresh food. Nearly 1/3 of adults have diabetes. Few residents know each other, and most don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods.

“The Health Leaders’ job is to build a sense of community and promote wellness by organizing healthy activities and helping residents navigate the services at the Health and Wellness Center,” said Emily.

Cooking Healthy
The Health Leaders started a cooking series to promote nutrition and connect healthy eating to everyday lives. The cooking lessons feature healthy recipes that relate to that day’s lesson on nutrition and health management led by the clinic’s nurse. Health leaders also lead a weekly instruction, such as “rethink your drink”, a visual demonstration about the amount of sugar in one bottled beverages.

Participants learn how the body is impacted by food — which foods cause disease and which foods heal. They learn where to shop and how to read labels. They cook together, and they share a meal together and get to know each other as neighbors.

Personal Transformation
The residents Emily hired applied because they care about their community. Having helped out with a survey last year, they demonstrated their ability to build trust with the community, but they had very little job experience.

As part of the program, Emily works with the Health Leaders to set their own health and professional goals. One leader, Shawnte, now takes classes at the city college health worker certification program based on this experience and her desire to do more of this work.

“I’ve never done this before, and they’ve never done this before,” says Emily. “It’s been awesome to turn over responsibility [to the Health Leaders]. My job is to know when to let them run with it and then get out of their way. When they can see they are trusted, they do it, and they know how to make it better!”

HOPE SF is an initiative that is transforming public housing communities by working hand-in-hand with community leaders. Programs like the Peer Health Leadership Program break down the barriers that families face, recognize the fortitude of the residents, and improve well-being for families that have lived through years of poverty and neglect.

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