A community-driven initiative is taking steps to increase the life expectancy of residents who live in certain sections of the city.
The Safety Council of Southwestern Ohio, the city of Middletown Health Department and community partners are working to improve the “significant health divide” within the city’s neighborhoods, said Kristy Duritsch, executive director of the safety council.
The initiative is called Middletown Connect, said safety council’s DeAnna Shores.
Duritsch said recent health data analysis uncovered a stark life expectancy gap of 12.5 years for residents who live in three census tracts near Rosa Parks Elementary School compared to those residing elsewhere. The data also showed discrepancies in education, crime and disease, according to Duritsch.
The collaborative alliance secured funding from the Ohio Department of Health to initiate the Ohio Improvement Zone (OHIZ) project. The goal is to empower community residents to lead change by addressing the causes of health inequities and creating programs, policies and practices to drive significant improvements in health outcomes, Duritsch said.
Rhonda Molina, president of Strategic Innovations Group, was contacted 18 months ago by Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips and Duritsch to write a grant, she said during a recent press conference at Miami University Middletown.
She said after talking to some Middletown residents about their health issues, she realized the city was “ripe and ready” for the grant. She added the city was prepared to attack the disparities in “a new and transformative way.”
Middletown Connect has received $571,000 in three grants, Duritsch said. It received $300,000 from the Ohio Department of Health for Phase I (August 2022-August 2023), a $156,000 extension through May 2024 from ODH, and a $115,000 advancing health justice grant from Interact for Health.
Since August 2022, the group has gathered health data, contacted health improvement partners, engaged 28 ambassadors who are “really invested in their communities,” Molina said.
Those discussions revealed that the “assumptions we made were not accurate,” Molina said. The residents were concerned about safety issues such as unrestrained dogs, lack of lighting on walking paths and cracked sidewalks.
Then 41 people, including city leaders and ambassadors, took a bus tour and on three occasions, walked around the neighborhoods, stopping to pick up trash and talk to residents about their concerns, Shores said. It was important, Shores said, for the leaders to see their communities and meet the residents.
She said the tours had “a great response” and created “a level of engagement” between leaders and residents. Now, she said, residents know City Manager Paul Lolli and police Chief David Birk.
“It’s about connecting and building relationships,” Shores said.
The school district followed suit.
Deborah Houser, superintendent of Middletown City Schools, said the district typically takes its first-year staff members on a bus tour around the city. But this year, all 1,000 district staff members participated in the bus tour as police officers served as tour guides.
She felt the tours were important because it’s “hard to serve when you don’t understand the population you’re serving.”
Some of the teachers said they had never seen Barnitz Stadium, the district’s high school football stadium on South Main Street, Douglass Park on Lafayette Avenue, the roller rink on Verity Parkway, the million-dollar homes and the ones boarded up with plywood.
“It’s causing people to make different decisions,” she said of the tour. “Moving people from awareness to action.”
Shores said Middletown Connect has short- and long-term goals. Some of them already have been met. More residents have participated in mobile health clinics and know their health risks, she said.
“Everybody is on board and excited,” she said. “It’s a movement, really. How we can make you more empowered.”
It will take years, she said, before Middletown Connect learns whether the initiative reached its ultimate goal: extending the lives of residents who live in three census tracts.