Gathering Their Voices: Reno County Health Department Leverages Grant Funding to Elevate Community’s Concerns

Written and Photographed by Jason Probst

The neighborhood around Lincoln Elementary School is incredibly rich.

It sits near Hutchinson’s largest public recreation area – Carey Park – which is home to an 18-hole golf course, a network of hike and bike trails, playgrounds for all ages of children, and a popular water park, Salt City Splash.

Hutchinson’s history began in areas near Lincoln School. It’s where entrepreneurs settled, and wealthy families raised their children in towering homes that overlooked tree-lined cobblestone streets.

It’s also the most diverse neighborhood in Hutchinson. Latinos make up upwards of 20 percent of the area’s population, while African-Americans account for 14 percent – in a city that is more than 80 percent white.

Each school day, children eagerly run into the front doors of Lincoln Elementary School, where they’re greeted by warm smiles. Many of these students seek out their teacher, or the school’s principal – Darla Fisher – for a hug or fist bump, before skipping into the auditorium for the morning assembly.

The Lincoln Neighborhood is incredibly rich, but it is not wealthy.

The median income in some census tracts hovers around $25,000, more than $20,000 lower than Hutchinson’s overall median income of $48,588, and $30,000 less than that state’s $53,571. Roughly half of the residents in the Lincoln School Neighborhood earn less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level

In 2018, The Hutchinson News analyzed Centers for Disease Control data to report that residents in much of the Lincoln Community not only endure lower incomes, they also live roughly 10 years less than their counterparts in wealthier areas of the city.

For the better part of three decades, urban flight and disinvestment have affected the Lincoln Community. Families have migrated to wealthier neighborhoods and most new home construction occurs on Hutchinson’s northern edge. Children who left Hutchinson years ago often place their inherited childhood homes on the market – at attractive prices for property investors.

Four people in front of brick school with sign reading "Lincoln" and an American flag in the background
Lincoln Community Group and Parent/Teacher Organization members Courtney Postier, Tori Graf, Pam Postier, and Jim Postier stand in front of a new digital school sign at Lincoln Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas. The group recently worked with the Reno County Health Department to identify some of the barriers to health equity in the community.

Those dynamics have allowed Hutchinson residents who live outside of the Lincoln Community to shape an incomplete, inaccurate, and psychologically harmful narrative that paints the Lincoln School Neighborhood as an unsafe place few would choose to live.

“That view really bothers me,” said Jim Postier, who was raised and lives in the Lincoln Neighborhood. “That view is the worst part, because it doesn’t just go on the house – it goes on the people.”

Deliberate Understanding

The “Smencil” comes in a variety of flavors. Grape and bubblegum are always popular.

Every Friday morning, the Lincoln Parent/Teacher Organization sells the “smelly pencils” to raise money. Students eagerly hand over $1 for their favorite, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to buy a few extras to hand out.

When Laurie Carr, Health Education Supervisor with the Reno County Health Department, applied for a Healthy Communities Initiative Grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, she sought to better understand the health issues facing the neighborhood. She also wanted to leverage the stories of the community’s invested members, who served as caretakers and leaders, as well as the enthusiastic support parents, teachers, and students held for the Lincoln PTO. Such stories, she believed, could help illustrate what elements the community possessed or lacked to address the social determinants of health – and by extension support action or policy toward better health equity.

“We approached this as a big experiment,” Carr said. “That’s why this grant was so appealing. We began to unveil things we hadn’t before, and ask how can we really help our community, and how do we bring people together?”

It didn’t take long to realize the strong sense of trust and community anchored around Lincoln Elementary School. It is a place that touches nearly every resident’s life. It’s a shared resource within the community – one that has been constant in spite of external forces. It serves as a community center, a source of activity, and a place where children find help, understanding, and love.

“It’s the glue of this neighborhood,” said Darla Fisher, principal at Lincoln Elementary School. “It’s one thing they can all relate to. It’s the common thread. Some kids are raised by their grandparents, and a lot of them came through here when they were in school.”

Three people standing in front of houses under construction with the sun setting in the background
Lincoln Community Group and Parent/Teacher Organization members Courtney, Pam, and Jim Postier stand on an overgrown sidewalk in the Lincoln Neighborhood. Through their work with the Health Equity Work group and the Reno County Health Department, the trio helped identify a lack of usable sidewalks as an immediate need toward improving health equity in the Lincoln Neighborhood. After undergoing intensive leadership training, the members have been able to better advocate for their community. 

Jackson Swearer, the Community Health Equity Specialist with the Reno County Health Department, was tasked with carrying out the grant’s mission. He took a dual track on the work: Meeting with the Lincoln Community Group and the PTO to better understand the community needs, and forming a health equity work group, comprised of local health advocates, and residents from the neighborhood.

Some broad goals included strengthening already existing relationships in the community, gathering input from members about what their community needed to improve health equity, increasing leadership capacity from within, and providing opportunities for residents to advocate for the Lincoln School Neighborhood.

“We started meeting with them (Lincoln PTO and Community Group) to get a handle on what we might be able to do to improve the neighborhood,” Swearer said. “What were their concerns? What did they want the neighborhood to look like?”

The process helped reveal what members of the community saw as barriers to increasing the health of the neighborhood: a lack of walkable sidewalks and the area’s poor housing stock.

“We did hear concerns about areas where kids would be traveling,” Swearer said. “Particularly the south edge of town, there are some ball fields there. In those areas, people are concerned about cars driving too fast, the sidewalks aren’t usable, and not having a way for kids to get around.”

The work also unlocked an opportunity to foster the organic relationship between the Lincoln PTO and the Lincoln Community group. The two groups coordinated their efforts, shared resources, and scheduled their meetings on the same nights and times – preventing busy working parents from missing one or the other.

“No one wants to have any more responsibility on top of what they already have at home and work,” says Lincoln Elementary parent and Lincoln PTO President Tori Graf.

A year’s worth of selling “smencils” comes back to families through the groups’ signature event: the end-of-school-year Block Party. It attracts more than 500 people each year, who enjoy a relatively care-free evening filled with food, games, and prizes. Moreover, it is a community event – where residents share stories about the school year and businesses and volunteers offer support with money and labor.

“It’s the whole neighborhood,” Graf said. “Everyone is having fun. No one has to worry about paying for anything. Everyone just feels comfortable out there. The adults can hang out and talk to each other, and know their kids are OK. And the community sees us and knows that we’re trying to do something good in our neighborhood.”

A Rising Tide

Those who live in the Lincoln School Neighborhood know what many people think about the community. They also know it’s more perception than reality.

“Growing up in Hutchinson, the Lincoln neighborhood was known as the bad side of town. Where bad people live,” Graf explained. “But I never saw that. Because it’s a poorer part of town, some think people are lazy or don’t care – but they don’t consider that they can’t afford it. Home improvement can wait when you’re paying your bills and feeding your kids.”

“I hear it all the time,” said Courtney Postier, who serves as treasurer of the Lincoln PTO, and is Jim and Pam Postier’s daughter-in-law. “Who wants to live down there? But if you make $20,000 a year or are on Social Security, you don’t have money to fix up a house. People are working two jobs and barely making it.”

Jim and Pam Postier offered that many residents simply don’t have the knowledge, funds, or credit to stay on top of housing issues.

“They’re worried about how to feed people this week,” Jim said. “People are doing more to manage money than you think. The problem is money – they don’t have it. There aren’t many jobs that pay $20 an hour.”

Close up of four people with sunflowers in the background
Members of the Lincoln Community Group and Parent/Teacher Organization say the work they’ve done with the Reno County Health Department has allowed them to better advocate for the Lincoln Neighborhood, as well as help them understand the challenges of solving adaptive problems. Shown left to right are: Courtney Postier, Tori Graf, Pam Postier, and Jim Postier

The ideas that have persisted about the neighborhood have led to a sort of resignation about the area – as well as a sense of distrust when the government or well-intentioned groups offer help. For many in the Lincoln Neighborhood, it’s easy to be ignored or overlooked in the city’s conversations about sidewalks, parks, and future development. Often, efforts designed to help only create financial burdens for those who can least afford them. One goal of the HCI grant was to help foster leaders from within the community who could effectively advocate for the area’s needs – and how best to achieve them.

Graf and the Postiers’ natural leadership roles in the community made them candidates for the Health Equity Workgroup, as well as extensive leadership training. The skills they’ve learned in understanding factions and competing values, and how to build consensus among those groups, will ideally serve the community in the future.

There are already signs of progress.

“The leadership training has helped the PTO,” Fisher said. “Its members had a strong drive, but not the leadership skills. They now have that to move people forward.”

Earlier this year Courtney Postier spoke up for the Lincoln School neighborhood during discussion on a master plan for Hutchinson’s parks and recreation. She raised one of the central issues identified by the work group – lack of adequate sidewalks in the area  – and sought inclusion of walkability between homes and parks in the area. Additionally, she advocated on behalf of PTOs in the school district – successfully urging them to reconsider a measure to require PTOs to purchase insurance against theft.

For the residents involved with the health equity work spearheaded by the Reno County Health Department, there’s reason to believe Lincoln’s tomorrow could be better than its immediate past. Graf and the Postiers all believe they’re better equipped to advocate for their community, with a more realistic understanding of the challenges that might stand in their way.

Swearer said one grant goal was that the neighborhood’s advocates would emerge stronger and better equipped to lead in the future.

“My deep hope is that as a result of the leadership training, the people in these groups have the capacity to continue that work – to engage more people, address bigger issues and do work they wouldn’t have thought was possible before.”

Darla Fisher, who has a unique view as the school’s principal, witnessed the tangible benefits of the work being done between the Lincoln PTO, the Lincoln Community group and the Health Equity Work group, and the Reno County Health Department.

elementary school with American flag  and children playing in front of it

There is the new electronic sign in front of the school and additional resources teachers can use in the classroom. The PTO successfully won a grant to replace outdated recess equipment – and created a fund for future needs. There’s the growing community interest in the block party, and new efforts to create additional community events. And a core group of people equipped to advocate for their neighborhood.

But educators often look beyond today, to see what might be. Fisher sees with hopefulness a new generation of resident advocates. A group shaped by their experiences and their neighborhood – who possess deep understanding of the community, are animated to ensure the richness of the Lincoln Community can be seen – and hold the capacity to ensure its wealth is fully realized.

“I guess what I’d like to see is an investment in that next tier,” Fisher said, identifying several Lincoln parents who are demonstrating interest and potential for community leadership. “If I were going to invest money into something or some bodies, I’d bet on some bodies. They’re the ones who have an eye out for the kids in the neighborhood. They’re out playing with their kids. They know what’s going on in the community. What would I do to make a place a better place? I would invest in people.”

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