Public Health & Recreation

New Providence Health Equity Zone Ready to Address Public Health, Environmental Concerns

Rhode Island’s Health Equity Zones address the root causes of uneven health outcomes at the local level. (DOH)

PROVIDENCE — Foundations are being laid for a new Health Equity Zone (HEZ) in the 02905 zip code, serving communities in lower South Providence, South Elmwood, and Washington Park.

The HEZ will be funded by the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) and headed by social service nonprofit Family Service of Rhode Island (FSRI). The program will support health initiatives in the area — from social cohesion to physical and environmental health — but, according to FSRI, its priorities will be shaped through community input over the coming months.

“Our goal is definitely to reduce the barriers that they go through on a common day and just help them to be as healthy as they can,” said Sandra Semedo, HEZ director with FSRI.

FSRI, which currently provides social services to 9,000 kids and adults throughout the state, submitted a grant application to the DOH earlier this year and will serve as the new HEZ’s backbone agency going forward. According to FSRI spokesperson William Tergaskis, FSRI will build off resources and connections already made in the community to best serve the health needs of 02905 residents.

“[FSRI] has had a longstanding partnership with a lot of community organizations,” said Tregaskis, adding that several home- and clinical-based programs, including its Walking School Bus initiative, already take place in the neighborhood.

DOH currently supports 10 HEZs across the state, each of which forms community networks to best offer health and wellness support for residents. Five additional HEZs are in the works, in South Providence, as well as the Blackstone Valley, Warren, Warwick and Tri-County areas.

HEZs in the South Providence vicinity, including West Elmwood, Cranston, and Central Providence, list priority concerns as physical health, poverty, community resiliency and trauma, youth education, and the natural and built environment.

The services and structure of the HEZ program will be based directly on community input — not pre-defined solutions, Semedo said. Community members are welcome to give comment at a meeting planned for this month, date to be determined.

“I think it’s different from what I was used to, and a system that I think all of us grew up in because a lot of times we had the system define the solutions or come up with the solutions,” said Semedo, herself a 02905 resident. “But now it’s vice versa — that’s why I’m excited about this initiative.”

Preliminary community surveys, conducted by FSRI from October 2020 to June 2021, showed 62 percent of 02905 residents were concerned about food insecurity. About 20 percent also identified health literacy, housing insecurity, and child-care needs as priority concerns.

In further interviews conducted this year, residents flagged “concerns about speeding and reckless driving, accidents and traffic, noisy cars and trash in the streets.” The survey also noted concern over safety and violence, financial stressors, building upkeep, food and job security, and a lack of resources for kids including school resources and updated playgrounds.

At a virtual town hall on Sept. 23, Rachel Newman Greene, deputy director at the Providence Healthy Communities Office, said attention should be given to environmental health in the 02905 area. She pressed the HEZ to involve community groups already addressing green-justice issues in the area.

“The port and air quality and environmental issues around the port are a major concern of those folks,” she said. “They should probably be in the mix.”

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