Health Forward mission mirrors new associate’s experiences

New program officer Jason Williams became a first-time father to Ellis just three days before his own birthday in March 2019.

When I saw the opening at Health Forward Foundation, I knew I wanted to be a part of this organization. The mission called to me because it positively impacts the underserved areas of Kansas City, areas that I called home.

But it wasn’t until I began working at Health Forward that I realized just how closely the values and mission mirrored my life experiences.

Safe places to play

I grew up in the zip code 64130, coined the “Murder Factory” in a 2009 Kansas City Star in-depth series (ed. note: for the full, three-part series, follow these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

Primarily because our neighborhood lacked safe places to play, I, along with my relatives, did not have the freedom to roam the neighborhood on our bikes, or parks or community centers to visit.

Instead, we had to make home fun. Playing football, basketball, tag, you name it, in our backyards are some of my fondest memories as a child.

School-based behavioral health services and food security

I also attended middle and high school in 64130. I saw  students who were unable to excel at school because of factors outside the classroom. And while this wasn’t my own experience, I couldn’t overlook what friends of mine were going through. In 2007, I became the senior class president with two goals:

  1. To do whatever I could to help every student graduate.
  2. To do whatever I could to ensure that each student enjoyed senior year. I wanted them to have the kind of year depicted in the movies, which all too often doesn’t apply to the urban core.

Partnerships

Northwest Missouri State University initially was a culture shock for me. I’d never been truly exposed to diversity outside of the teachers in my high school classrooms. Now I had classmates who didn’t look like me.

My method of adjusting was to find my comfort space, so I could make friends and connections while doing something I’m passionate about. As a freshman, under the mentorship of Ame Lambert who was like a second mother to me, I founded a campus organization called STATS (Students Taking Action through Service) to encourage more inner-city students to reach for higher education. At my high school, college wasn’t discussed as an option for most students. I wanted to change that.

Understanding that I could not achieve this goal alone, I formed a partnership with the admissions office that allowed STATS to serves as the NWMSU student body voice for all inner-city high school tours and college fairs. STATS grew to be one of the largest organizations on campus and won multiple awards of distinction from the university.

Advocacy

After graduation, I returned to my 64130 roots to serve as recreation director with Kansas City Parks and Recreation. While I have fond memories of playing in my backyard, I wanted something different for the kids in 64130. I advocated for youth programs and development that the neighborhood sorely lacked as I was growing up.

At 24, I found my calling when I was selected to be the founding director of the newly renovated Mary L. Kelly Community Center in 2013, the site of my former elementary school.

Having the opportunity to directly impact my own neighborhood was invigorating. There were so many issues I wanted to address through programming: youth development, active living, neighborhood transformation just to name a few.

Healthy eating and active living

I worked alongside my Mary Kelly Center colleagues to form strategic partnerships that brought valuable programs and services to the community center. One of our first partnerships was with Health Forward Foundation, which provided the first grant to the Mary L. Kelly Center to offer fitness and nutrition classes to residents at no cost.

Over the next several years, we expanded programming and capacity. At its peak, the center developed more than 30 strategic partnerships across sectors to impact the community’s healthy eating and active living, and served more than 2000 individuals.

Healthy Communities

It seems my experiences have all led to this moment, where after two months of working with Health Forward, I’m now a healthy communities program officer. Health Forward’s values and mission dovetail with my experience in community service and my passion to help those most in need.

I have a sense of satisfaction in working for an organization that helps mitigate factors that have so often created barriers to students’ educational success, and I look forward to working with community partners to address the social determinants of health in our region.


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Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006