When Care Ring, the longest operating low-cost health care clinic in Mecklenburg County, launched its mobile unit in December 2022, the organization called the trailer The Bridge because it served as a bridge between health care providers and the community.
Having chosen the Grier Heights neighborhood in southeast Charlotte as the launching point for the project — which provides free health care in under-resourced neighborhoods throughout Charlotte — the team figured the best place to connect with the community would be the Grier Heights Community Center.
After a few months of operating from there, however, the Care Ring team wasn’t seeing the traffic they had hoped for. Then one day, the mobile unit’s driver, Phillip Manning, made a fortuitous visit to the 7-Eleven at the entrance of the neighborhood on Wendover Road.
The owner of the convenience store saw the trailer and commented that it would be cool if they could operate out of the parking lot, and just like that a new partnership was born. In May 2023, The Bridge began setting up at the 7-Eleven, as they do every Tuesday to this day, building a relationship with neighbors in one of the area’s most heavily trafficked community spaces.
“[The 7-Eleven franchisees] were referring people. They were telling people, ‘Hey, come back next Tuesday,’” recalled Tchernavia Montgomery, CEO and executive director at Care Ring. “So they’ve become a stakeholder. We consider them a partner.”
In the year that The Bridge has been in operation, the Care Ring team has formed similar relationships in other communities, including in the North End, where they have partnered with the North End Community Coalition to serve the eight neighborhoods that fall under that organization’s purview.
Queen City Nerve met with leaders of Care Ring and Next Stage Consulting during a recent Thursday set-up for The Bridge in a strip-mall parking lot on North Graham Street to discuss the health care nonprofit’s approach to community engagement.
“Too often you just arrive somewhere and you assume that people are going to take advantage of a service that you have, and that’s not the case with us,” said Montgomery. “We want to take time to build that relationship and become a partner. We are not the experts, the neighborhood is. The people that are getting the care, they are the experts. We’re not going to do something to them or for them, we’re doing something with them.”
Next Stage Consulting has helped Care Ring implement its “community voice” approach to engagement, partnering with grassroots organizations and community leaders to build dialogue with neighbors and ensure that people are treated based on their own needs rather than the inherent bias that might drive a health care professional’s decision-making process.
Care Ring officials know that a person’s zip code has a greater impact on their health than genetic code. Chronic illness is a way of life for many people, particularly in under-resourced neighborhoods, which see higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and other issues. These conditions are inextricably linked to a number of factors, including location, socioeconomic status and race, which are called the “social determinants of health.”
However, it takes more than knowing the broad statistics to actually serve a community. When The Bridge arrives in Grier Heights, North End, or the ABC Store on Wilkinson Boulevard where it also operates, it comes staffed with a multidisciplinary team: a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse, community health workers, and a mental health professional.
But there are folks who come before that to begin building relationships in the community.
Helen Hope Kimbrough, senior director of community voice with Next Stage, begins the process to ensure that Care Ring’s professionals are coming into an area with “an unbiased approach and a view of the work that we’re doing.”
She recalled how she began her work in Grier Heights by walking from her home to the mobile unit location.
“I wanted to see what it would be like for a mom to walk with two kids, or for a person who does not speak English or a second language, how would they navigate that?” she explained. “I also wanted to see what type of things would be needed for a person who may be disabled. And so along that walk, I got a chance to kind of embody some of that, because I feel like some of this work people come to with a bias. So how do we pull back all of that so that we can literally look to see the neighborhood — what’s going on, the people, the bus routes, all of those things?”
A large part of Care Ring’s work, especially in The Bridge, is to learn the needs of the community and either refer patients to other organizations or bring those organizations on as partners.
In The Bridge’s first year in operation, Care Ring partnered with the Local Initiative Service Corporation to help carry out community initiatives, Wellpath for addiction recovery services, Loaves & Fishes and The Bulb to address food insecurity, Mecklenburg County Public Health to carry out HIV and STD prevention or screening, and a number of other local organizations and agencies.
Each week they partner with Hearts for the Invisible and Block Love Charlotte, two organizations that serve local neighbors struggling with homelessness, to better understand and address the needs of that community.
“This is a game changer for an underserved community,” said Deborah Woolard of Block Love, which has offices in the same strip mall where The Bridge sets up on North Graham Street. “They are engaging now and that means the world, because we have people out there with some serious problems, whether it’s mental health or just health conditions like high blood pressure … even from the prenatal perspective. We have women out here that haven’t even had their first prenatal visit and they’re five or six months since their pregnancy. But we have Care Ring to come along and hold your hand and offer you trusted resources. It’s a game changer, and that’s what I love.”
Having just passed the one-year mark for The Bridge, Montgomery said the organization is currently working to secure funding for the second half of 2024, as it is currently funded only through the end of the fiscal year in June.
Having seen growth both in its number of patients served and community partners, the organization will also continue to analyze how to better serve communities by implementing community voice moving forward.
“We do want to engage in practices that we can share with others what’s working for us, why it’s working for us, in hopes that we can all take lessons learned from one another,” Montgomery said. “So we’re trying to also inform the system about how community-based care can operate outside of four walls.”
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