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CDC honors community hero for tackling racial disparities in health

Posted at 12:14 PM, Sep 03, 2020

As many feel the trauma inflicted by headlines of racial injustice, COVID-19 continues to hit minorities disproportionally in America.

"I think the voices of the young people are being heard and they're speaking out," said Lessie Williams, a community advocate in Portland, Oregon.

Williams spent 20 years building up and believing in the young people she serves. Through her church's non-profit organization, Highland Haven, she wanted to bring wrap-around services to families most at risk, expanding mental health services and creating youth violence prevention programs.

"Building relationships with them, let them know you really care and be your authentic self because kids know," said Williams.

For many of those years, she worked alongside Pastor W. G. Hardy, who passed away in 2018.

They took part in a national program administered by the CDC aimed at reducing racial and ethnic health disparities.

"We felt like, focus on health and wellness and try to get rid of some of those disparities in our communities," said Williams.

Rather than make the change inside one church, they created a network of churches and community organizations serving African Americans in Multnomah County. Williams worked through this network to increase access to health care, bringing preventive services such as blood pressure screenings to community churches, and increasing access to healthy foods.

"The biggest thing for me was health. I come from a family of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and that's not talked about in our community. It's not talked about in our culture," said Teresa Johnson, co-chair for the Highland Haven Health and Wellness Team.

They've reached thousands of people through this work, helping community members improve their physical health, manage their mental health, and cope with the traumas of racial injustice.

"We're going to Zoom and talk about the disparities that are going on in our community, how it is affecting our youth. We've got to wrap around our arms around the youth," explained Johnson.

Williams' work earned her the CDC's first REACH Lark Award, an award celebrating those making tangible strides in achieving health equity.

"Inspirational, humbling, I was really surprised," said Williams.

"She gave us the push we needed to get inspired and come up with these ideas and things to do to heighten awareness on health and wellness," said Barbara Perry, the Health and Wellness Coordinator at Life Change Church.

While Williams is retiring, the firm foundation she's helped to build will continue on in the city.

"We always say it takes a village to raise a child," said Johnson. "Well, this village of churches decided we're going to tackle this for our community, and that was the greatest gift."