I grew up in Allen County, a community of 13,000 people spread out over 404 square miles, and a school system that fed well over half its students free or reduced school lunches. For most of my upbringing, poverty was just a fact of life, etched into generational lifestyles of families who have never been able to dig themselves out of governmental failure.
That poverty never truly leaves you, no matter if you stay or leave home. And with that mindset, I’ve always questioned the authenticity of philanthropy foundations and how significant an impact they had in my small, rural Kansas community. I often envisioned them as the private school kid who had everything I didn’t: money, power, and a large network of other important individuals.
Even if local and federal governments leave rural Kansas and Missouri behind, I believe Health Forward will always be there to help bring these communities, including my own, back to the forefront and make sure they have a voice at the policymaking table
My negative assessment of philanthropy began to turn in 2005 when Thrive Allen County was formed in my hometown to reverse the poor health results and few resources experienced by those living in Allen County. I began as a summer intern during my sophomore year of high school and quickly transitioned into a staff member after falling in love with the act of public service. Three years and a college acceptance letter later, I didn’t want to stop. That’s what led me to Health Forward Foundation.
It was only days into this internship that I had a full-circle moment when I met Health Forward’s grant management team. When they learned that I’m from a rural community in Allen County, they spoke highly about a local woman they have worked with for years, Angela Henry, who founded a program named “SAFE BASE.” Since I was a SAFE BASE student growing up and personally benefited from the experience, it was gratifying to know that Health Forward has always been in my life in such a supportive way without me even knowing it.
SAFE BASE provides academic, health, and social enrichment in a safe and fun environment for local children, four afternoons a week. It benefits parents who are unable to pick up their children mid-afternoon, and it gives children (including me through my childhood) a safe place to go after the school yard’s bell rings. Children receive an after-school meal and have access to after-school academic and enrichment programs that teach learning skills and empower students to achieve their potential.
Through this personal interaction and many others that I have witnessed during my internship, I have come to realize that the staff at Health Forward have deep relationships with their partners and truly make it a personal mission to help others succeed. Especially the ones who have been disenfranchised time and time again; people like me. I have had the privilege of watching Health Forward work through a period of growth, and they generously allowed me to learn along with them. Developing an asset-based mindset has been a favorite skill that I’ve learned about at my time with Health Forward. It has led me to rewiring how I talk about people and communities and has helped me reshape how I think about them as well — defining them by their assets instead of their challenges. I see so many of those assets in rural communities like my own, and much of it begins with the kindness between neighbors.
Health Forward staff has remained committed to rural health, an “unsexy” topic among funders because of its lack of investment publicity. Even if local and federal governments leave rural Kansas and Missouri behind, I believe Health Forward will always be there to help bring these communities, including my own, back to the forefront and make sure they have a voice at the policymaking table.