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These 4 Tennessee nonprofits work to improve health and wellness in their communities

Key Takeaways

  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust donated a combined $17,000 to the 4 organizations mentioned in this story.
  • In total, the trust has donated $517,054 to Tennessee nonprofits in 2021.
  • The Community Trust provides support to non-profit partners across Tennessee. Funding focuses on charitable clinics, disease prevention and treatment, youth development, and diversity and inclusion.

“They’re just a bad kid.”

As adults, we’ve all heard someone say that — when a child is violent, acting out in class or simply refuses to pay attention no matter what caregivers try. But those are five words you’ll never hear anyone say at Hope House Daycare Center in Memphis.

“Young children often don’t have the vocabulary to explain all the things they’re seeing in their home life,” says Allie DeWitt, family resources and community engagement manager at Hope House. “When those issues are serious — domestic violence, addiction, abandonment — that can come out during play. And if their caregivers don’t have the tools to understand what’s happening, these kids get written off.”

Hope House ensures that never happens, especially for one highly vulnerable population: kids who are HIV-positive or have a caregiver who is, and who live 100% below the poverty level. And they’ve received a grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust to support their work.

The Community Trust provides support to health-focused programs and organizations statewide, working with partners like Hope House to promote the wellbeing of Tennesseans. “The Community Trust was established in 1999 and began distributing funds in 2000,” says Chelsea Johnson, BlueCross director of community relations. “Each year, we give between $400,000 and $500,000 to partners who use the grants to sponsor special events aimed at fundraising and raising awareness for various causes.”

“In the ’90s, the Junior League of Memphis noticed that HIV-positive mothers had no safe place to take their children,” Allie says. “They were either turned away by daycares or their kids were neglected — put in a crib and not touched the rest of the day because there was so much stigma and fear. They started Hope House to be a safe place for those families.”

The grant from the Community Trust means that Hope House can help more children and families in need.

Elijah, a child at Hope House

Growing services meet growing needs

When they opened, Hope House served five children, three days a week. They quickly expanded their services to address another need: mental health services for both parents and children. Families were being evicted, parents were losing their jobs, and children were left to deal with the fallout.

So Hope House started offering social services to adults as well, and today it serves 40 children, five days a week in daycare, as well as 500 adults. They have two family therapists on staff who check in weekly with the parents of all kids in daycare and preschool. And they focus on a two-generation approach (2Gen), which aims to build family well-being by addressing the needs of parents and children together.

As a nonprofit, Hope House relies heavily on grants to fund adult programming. Oftentimes, that leaves little dedicated specifically to children’s programming, which is where donations like the $5,000 grant from the BlueCross Community Trust come in. That money goes directly to paying teachers, keeping the school open and ensuring all services stay free to parents, down to providing gas cards and bus passes to parents who couldn’t otherwise get their kids to daycare. Twenty-five years in, the results have been remarkable.

Playing through the pain

“We had one little boy who would hide a doll and say, ‘Where’s mommy? We have to find mommy!’” Allie remembers. “Over time, we learned that his mom was in and out of the picture, and that gave us tremendous insight into the challenges he was up against. We had another child who would come in and throw all the toys off the shelves into the floor. We learned that his family had been evicted from their home, and all their possessions had been thrown out into the street. Recreating that experience during play was the only way he could convey how that felt, and we were then able to help him.”

Left unaddressed, situations like these can manifest as violence, which is why it’s critical to have trained family therapists on hand. The earlier you can intervene, the better the results.

“We had one kid whose mom was in a domestic violence situation, and so many people had written him off as the proverbial ‘bad kid,’” Allie says. “He started play therapy with us in daycare, developed a great relationship with his therapist, and now he’s in second grade getting straight As. It’s always easier to write a kid off than it is to take the time to find out what’s going wrong. But every child is worth helping, and that’s what we get to do at Hope House.”

HIV today

  • Nearly 7,000 people in Shelby County have HIV.
  • Domestic violence rates are high among HIV positive individuals. Allie says that many parents stay in bad situations because their partner will say, “No one else will love you or accept you if you leave. I am your only option.” Kids see and internalize all of that.
  • Most children at Hope House are no longer HIV-positive because of antiretroviral drugs moms can take. However, a child may still be born with HIV if the mom finds out she’s HIV positive too late, or if the mom is homeless and can’t take her medicine.
  • While progress has been made in ending the HIV epidemic over the past 25 years, the stigma surrounding HIV is still very real. “You can’t catch HIV from hugging an HIV-positive child, or from a child sneezing on you,” Allie says, “but a lot of people still don’t want to pick up or feed a child who has HIV. I want to be clear: daily interaction with a child who has HIV poses no threat to you, and neither does interacting with someone with HIV in your community.”
  • To learn more about HIV, visit EndHIV901.

In order to be eligible for funding from the Community Trust, nonprofits must focus on one or more of the following:

  • Charitable care
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Disease management
  • Youth development

Many, like Hope House, check off multiple focus areas. Here are three more 2021 BlueCross Community Trust grantees doing good work in the health and wellness space in Tennessee.

Wellness YOUniversity

Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga

The Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga (B&GC), programs often revolve around academics. But in the summertime, the club broadens its focus with special events like Wellness YOUniversity. The goal of the event is simple, if ambitious: to instill a life-long trajectory of physical activity and nutrition for B&GC youth.

For the 2021 event, 350 youth met up at two clubs — Highland Park and East Lake — and were divided by age group. Twenty BlueCross TeamBlue volunteers guided youth and families through wellness stations which included activities from yoga and dance to games and workshops. Students rotated between fitness and education units, both of which were designed to increase their knowledge of nutrition, healthy food choices, ideas for daily physical activity, and decreasing stress in healthy ways.

The fitness unit focused on:

  • Basic movement skills and overall fitness
  • Confidence by exposing youth to new sports and fitness activities
  • Motivation to be physically active each day

The education unit focused on:

  • Nutrition and healthy eating
  • Age-appropriate cooking and snack preparation
  • Teaching youth to identify and consider negative and positive health behaviors and messages from their peers, family and media

“We believe that by educating one young person, not only will that child live a healthier, happier life, but that young person will also positively influence their family and friends, and ultimately break the cycle of health neglect in impoverished areas of our city,” says James J. Morgan, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga.

In 2020, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga served 1,996 youth , with 90% identifying as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC). The clubs’ goal is to enable all youth, especially at-risk students, to reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.

The BlueCross Community Trust provided a $7,500 grant to support the Wellness YOUniversity program.

Suicide Prevention in Tennessee Schools

Mental Health America of the MidSouth

MHA in the classroom

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Tennessee youth. More people die by suicide than from auto accidents, despite the fact that suicide is 100% preventable.

Mental Health America (MHA) of the MidSouth has been a leader in suicide prevention for more than 15 years. Headquartered in Nashville and serving all of Middle and West Tennessee, MHA’s Zero Suicide Initiative focuses on training staff at schools, hospitals, clinics, jails and prisons to recognize and respond to the warning signs of suicide.

Evidence-based trainings range from one to eight hours. All trainings explain the basics of suicide prevention, while some dive deeper into mental health, helping people recognize and respond to depression, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, addiction or psychosis.

School-based training for older students focuses on the ACT model:

  1. Acknowledge and validate others’ thoughts and feelings
  2. Care by listening and taking threats seriously, and
  3. Tell/Treat, which entails accompanying the person to a helpful resource.

“It’s so important to get grants like this so we can train teachers, administrators, school resource officers and older students to recognize and respond to the risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide,” says Tom Starling, CEO of MHA of the MidSouth.

The BlueCross Community Trust provided a $2,500 grant to support suicide prevention in Tennessee schools .

“Mission of Mercy” free dental care event

Helping Hands of Tennessee

Most chronic health conditions are linked to poor oral health. Diabetes, hypertension, obesity — these affect 80% of patients at Helping Hands of Tennessee, a medical and dental clinic in Jackson that offers free or low-cost services to people in need.

Intervening early can make the difference in preventing cancer, heart attack and stroke — and it can also make the difference in whether a person can wheel themselves out of a room or walk.

“Recently we had a patient who was leaving the clinic after his last appointment, and I noticed our dental assistant tearing up,” says Sabrina Blue, founder & CEO of Helping Hands. “She said, ‘Sabrina, this patient came to us in a wheelchair. His doctor told him he needed a full-mouth extraction or the bacteria eating away at his teeth would kill him. He’d been to several providers, all of which were too expensive, and he was angry because he was expecting the same outcome here. We explained that our services are based on income. We got all his teeth extracted, and 5 weeks later, we fitted him for dentures. Today, I watched him walk out of here with a cane, and with a brand new smile. He’s happy and proud, and we had a hand in that.’”

Seeing patients go from fearful to confident is common at Helping Hands, but it’s meaningful every time. Judging by the response the clinic has gotten since opening in 2018, many Tennesseans could use that boost. The clinic sees 2,500 unique patients each year, which amounts to more than 6,000 visits. As the only non-profit clinic that owns its own dental lab, they make dentures and partials in-house at a fraction of the retail cost, in addition to offering full general dentistry, from cleanings to crowns. Most of all, they go out of their way to treat the people who are most in need.

At least 35% of our patients will miss a dental appointment simply because they don’t have transportation ,” Sabrina says. “So we secured a grant with Project Finish Line and Uber Health to provide those services, and we added patient care coordinators to reschedule missed appointments.”

To reach even more people, Helping Hands began hosting an annual Mission of Mercy two-day event in 2019 along with other local non-profits. While the 2021 event was scaled down due to COVID, Helping Hands was still able to provide $200,000 of free dental services to the community.

“When someone gets their smile back, they feel confident in applying for a job and getting it, or they feel like they can go on a date again,” Sabrina says. “Helping people gain confidence can completely change their lives.”

The BlueCross Community Trust provided a $2,500 grant to support the Helping Hands Mission of Mercy event.

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