For healthcare to be about health, it must start on people’s dinner plates and happen daily. For Niki Lee Donawa, Chief Community Relations Officer at University Health (UH), the effort is not merely education, strategy, and resources, it is the ability to impact generational wellbeing for the present and the future.
One of her primary initiatives at the heart of community support is the Healthy Harvest Mobile Market. This traveling grocery store goes within the city into food deserts and provides access to fresh produce at cost. “We don’t just make it free. People deserve the dignity and respect to know that they can pay for their produce, but this makes it affordable,” Donawa said.
This effort began as an extension of the instruction that doctors would give their patients after discharge from the hospital. “It was important for us to make sure the patient understood how food can be healing,” Donawa said. Access was the first problem, but once that was addressed, it became clear that education needed to be available too. “It’s important that you make people comfortable with you enough that they can keep asking questions until they fully understand what is best for them.”
What Donawa does is more significant than community outreach, which is more transactional. Her team’s effort is to engage people where they live and develop partnerships and relationships that can help leverage community participation in better health. “When you are engaging individuals, and you keep showing up, they start to expect to see you, and that builds trust. Once you have respected members of that community on your side, you can leverage their support to make a real difference,” Donawa said.
In serving the UH community, Donawa has discovered that communication is critical both ways. “I am always learning from the community. You have to listen more than you speak when engaging with the community,” Donawa said, “That way, you know how to meet the needs they have.”
This is a systemic effort; the team at UH can connect with many diverse communities in these neighborhoods. “Not everyone looks alike, thinks alike, so you have to show them that we are the same as their community,” Donawa said. “UH truly is essential to Kansas City. No other health care systems are considered a safety net, so we want to make sure that we can go out and go beyond the hospital’s four walls to meet people where they are.”
This endeavor will create a more equitable lifespan from zip code to zip code as people demonstrate these new behaviors. “There is an old saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We want this to be sustainable,” Donawa said. “We want the model to live on much longer so that those deposits can be made generation after generation.”
Success happens when the right thing is done repeatedly. Donawa knows that building a healthy community is about taking care of each other. That is why she and her team give the community the gift of their health, healthy food cooked right and served with respect and dignity. This means longer lifespans, stronger communities, and generations of a higher quality of life for all.