Pulling up next to Children’s Health Fund’s mobile medical clinic in Watts recently, I was taken aback at the contrasts. The drive to 103rd Street in South Central Los Angeles had been populated by a chorus of liquor stores, churches, boarded up shops, more churches and more liquor stores. Arriving at the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, I was greeted by the intensity of a blazing sun reflected off the soft pastel colors of the Children’s Health Fund supported mobile clinic, and the sight almost blended with the distant sound of kids frolicking in a near idyllic playground. Clinic Driver Dwight Magee was first to welcome me as I cautiously approached the tented waiting area and asked, “Am I still in Watts?”
The answer was clearly yes, and the evidence was served up repeatedly over the next several hours as I spoke with the leadership and staff of COACH for Kids, the Cedars-Sinai based partner of the Children’s Health Fund, and visited old and new local landmarks. Clearly, this was Watts and while many of the scars of the Watts Riots, recently passing their 50 Year commemorative, are both visible and seemingly entrenched, things are definitely looking up for the community surrounding the public housing project known as Jordan Downs.
And the Children’s Health Fund medical program, not surprisingly, is at the center of progress, literally helping drive the community forward, one kid, and one family, at a time.
When I arrived the mobile clinic was busy with a family that had just grown by 66 percent. A single mom, Gloria, who has two kids, had just inherited a second family from her sister. After struggling in the United States for several years, Gloria’s sister had decided to return to Central America. She dropped by Gloria’s house on the way and dropped off her two children – it will be better for them here, she said, please take them. And just like the team on COACH for Kids, Gloria welcomed her niece and nephew and knew where to turn for help – the Children’s Health Fund.
The individualized attention given to this family was extraordinary. Gloria had called to make an appointment after receiving a referral from a local service provider. The two new kids hadn’t been registered for Medicaid yet but Gloria knew that her children would be given a high quality, comprehensive screening – regardless of their ability to pay. As she left the mobile clinic, Gloria had a few follow-up appointments lined up, the kids were all smiles, and she was signed up for insurance to help cover the costs of the specialty appointments that would right the many years of poverty-induced illnesses her extended family had arrived with.
The challenges that the new extended family faced were not unlike the issues that Children’s Health Fund-supported team confronted on the first days of working in Watts many years ago. With community trust strained, determined outreach was required to position the new mobile clinic as a community asset, at the service of the community as opposed to coming in and servicing the community. After too many years of good intentions and projects that seemed to come and go with the seasons, community leaders in Watts demanded commitment and accountability – and under the dynamic leadership of Michele Rigsby Pauley, the Children’s Health Fund program is delivering just that.
The contrast of Jordan Downs – visually defined by numbered housing units and an almost township-like setting of fences and barred windows – with the distinctly individualized development that is manifesting now in Watts, is nothing short of transformational.
There are many things that point toward a new day dawning in Watts; significant amounts of economic development funds are being put forward; new partnerships are being developed to couple health and education resources that are increasingly child-centered and community centric; and a fresh health food restaurant called ‘LocoL’ has opened offering patrons the first new sit down restaurant in Watts “in many years” according to Councilman Joe Buscaino.
But perhaps the greatest positive contrast in Watts today can be found somewhat ironically in what I discovered to be the community’s strongest metaphor. One of the areas of need, and of increased programming and services is an expanding mental health program for children who have grown up too quickly; who have born witness to violence and trauma that is often reserved for the battlefields of foreign wars. The Children’s Health Fund and COACH for Kids’ mental health program is called “Rising Stars.” And wouldn’t the 50 years of time that have elapsed since the Watts riots be best put to rest, in the dawning of a new day for the children and families of Watts, by the many individual points of light that make up the rising stars? Rising Stars – literally leading the way for a new day in Watts – a community in contrast and in transition. Indeed the sky is the limit.