HEALing Communities: Creating a Safe Haven in Denver

Feature Story

HEALing Communities is a series that highlights Kaiser Permanente’s approach to building healthy communities through Healthy Eating Active Living collaboratives, a program developed by Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit organization.

Kaiser Permanente recognizes that it’s not enough to encourage people to take care of their health, to eat healthy nutritious foods and be physically active throughout the day. Good health also requires supporting the conditions in which people live, work and play; to make healthy eating and active living as easy and attainable as possible. The Westwood neighborhood in Denver is one of those communities where making “the right thing easy to do” is having a positive impact on community health.

It started with recognizing some of the barriers to health in the community — gang violence, graffiti strewn fences and walls, lack of access to healthy foods or safe parks — and working with community residents to overcome those barriers. Through a collaborative effort by Kaiser Permanente and their partners in Colorado, the residents of Westwood have begun to build a safe haven for themselves.

Shifting the Tide

The Westwood community is a predominantly single-family neighborhood situated in southwest Denver with a population of nearly 15,500 people. Many residents are recently arrived, mostly Mexican, immigrants. More than a quarter of them do not speak English. The neighborhood has historically suffered from high levels of poverty relative to other neighborhoods. Depression, diabetes, obesity and drug addiction afflict residents here at higher rates than many other communities.

Safety is a critical issue here. Many of Westwood’s youth believe they have no future; some turn to gang violence and other crimes to vent their frustration. The lack of a safe environment, coupled with other cultural and social barriers that discourage exercise among residents, have created unhealthy conditions and a rise in chronic disease, overweight and obesity.

The key to shifting the tides of change lay in shifting the Westwood environment to one that fosters community engagement and camaraderie among residents, beyond the differences of generation, faith and culture. It necessitated creating safe places and opportunities to interact with one another and bring people together.

Partnering on Prevention

LiveWell Colorado

Enter LiveWell Colorado, a collaborative launched in the fall of 2006 that brought together several community partners including Kaiser Permanente, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Health Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. The goal of LiveWell was to initiate policy, environmental, and lifestyle changes that remove barriers and encourage healthy behaviors among all Coloradans. The collaborative was so successful in its early years that support and funding were expanded in early 2008 and the organization became a 501(c)3 in early 2009.

“Kaiser Permanente has always recognized that creating healthy behaviors in people starts with creating healthy communities,” says Corina Lindley, senior community health specialist for Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “It is not an effort that can be accomplished alone, but requires collaboration between concerned residents, community leaders and policy makers to enact change in the community. LiveWell Colorado is the wonderful outcome of that collaboration, and Kaiser Permanente is proud to support LiveWell’s mission to inspire and advance policy, environmental and lifestyle changes that promote health throughout our state.”

LiveWell Westwood

LiveWell Westwood is one of 22 community initiatives that LiveWell Colorado has invested in across the state. Beginning in 2008, a coalition of community partners came together to establish healthy eating and active living opportunities in the community. With the support of LiveWell Colorado, the coalition drafted a set of six overarching strategies to guide their ongoing work:

  • Increase walkability through improvements in the built and social environments.
  • Policy creation and reform in schools, businesses and faith-based organizations.
  • Increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables through the promotion of healthy eating systems.
  • Increase in physical activity through the promotion of active living systems.
  • Achieve sustainability so that these programs and strategies remain beyond the project’s funding period.
  • Employ useful and culturally-relevant communication methods to educate and motivate individuals to promote improved healthy eating and physical activity.

Through the financial support, collaboration, technical assistance and opportunities for shared learnings and collaborations that LiveWell Colorado provides, the Westwood coalition targeted several environmental barriers to health: lack of safety, stress due to poverty and immigration status, lack of safe parks, poor lighting, narrow sidewalks and lack of affordable healthy foods.

Safe and Healthy Environments

The LiveWell Westwood collaborative is now in its 4th year of funding, and the community is showing signs of great success in improving the health of its population. Among the many outcomes of the collaborative are the following:

  • Built a new playground and schoolyards for the residents living in Westwood.
  • With the help of Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program, empowered and engaged teens at Lincoln High School created videos and resources that promote safe walking/biking to school.
  • Constructed and support two community/school gardens; 87 backyard gardens; farmers markets; and food, nutrition and gardening education to students and community members.
  • Conducted dozens of resident-led graffiti clean-up sessions.
  • Trained community residents of all ages to lead free sports and exercise programs offered regularly throughout the community, including a coordinated network of Zumba classes.

Perhaps the greatest outcome from the collaborative, one that might be more challenging to measure, is the way in which residents have come together to embrace the changes in their community. In the process, they formed a more tightly-knit community.

“We have been steadfast in our mission to identify the roots of overweight and obesity in Westwood and to make positive change,” says Rachel Cleaves, project coordinator for LiveWell Westwood. “What we’ve found is that the community gardens, clean and safe walking paths, group exercise programs and newly built parks and playgrounds got residents out of their homes talking to one another and engaging with their neighbor. And once those relationships were formed, the community became a safer and more enjoyable place to live.”