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VCU plans health education and wellness center for Richmond’s East End

Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health System are teaming with community partners to develop a health education and wellness center that will serve residents of Richmond’s East End.

The health education and wellness center will be located at the intersection of Nine Mile Road and 25th Street as part of a larger redevelopment initiative that will also feature a grocery store, apartments and a culinary institute operated by J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. The VCU center will complement Bon Secours’ Sarah Garland Jones Center, which is already in the area.

Steve Markel, a local businessman and philanthropist, is funding and developing the grocery store, culinary school and apartments. The comprehensive project is a revitalization of a portion of the Nine Mile Road and 25th Street corridors and provides new resources in an area of the East End identified as a food desert and where a majority of residents live in poverty and have poor health outcomes. The health education and wellness center is projected to open in late 2018.

“This entire project is about building a healthy community,” Markel said. “It’s an opportunity to bring many community partners together to create opportunities, resources and healthy options for the residents.”

To date, more than 15 VCU and VCU Health academic and clinical units have signed up to offer services and programming at the health education and wellness center, making it an interprofessional training ground for students and faculty. Teams will work together in the center to provide assessments and screenings, nutrition outreach, behavioral health support, chronic disease prevention and management, health education, care coordination, referrals to community providers and organizations, and research and evaluation. Most services will be provided at no charge by interdisciplinary teams of VCU faculty and students who are working either as a community service activity or as part of their academic program.

“This initiative presents us with an opportunity to collaborate with the community in a new way,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System. “It is through our collective action that we can — along with our partners in the community — help create long-term, sustainable solutions to difficult social problems. Working together, our goal is to create a sustainable presence in the East End that addresses the community’s needs and demonstrates the collective commitment of VCU and VCU Health to the neighborhood.”

Through the leadership of VCU’s new Center for Urban Communities, the university is incorporating voices from the community into the planning process to create a sustainable initiative that reflects the needs of residents in the East End. VCU has partnered with Engaging Richmond, part of VCU’s Center for Society in Health, to develop a community outreach plan that engages key stakeholders in the East End, including service providers, community leaders and residents. Already, key findings from engagement efforts include the community’s desire for behavioral health support, grief and trauma support, nutrition counseling and exercise classes. Ongoing engagement efforts will include surveys and focus groups as well as other ways to engage residents on an ongoing basis in the operation of the center. The planned services also align with information gathered from a survey conducted by VCU and the 7th District Health and Wellness Initiative.

The 5,600-square-foot facility will include screening and consultation spaces, a community room, health education library, student and faculty space, and ample parking, security and lighting. The center will be located adjacent to the full-service, 27,000-square-foot grocery store, which is also in the planning stages and is slated to open in late 2018. The health education and wellness center will be integrated into the customer experience at the grocery store, empowering consumers to make healthy choices and conveniently access services.

“I am elated that our community partners — Steve Markel, VCU and VCU Health, American Heart Association, Bon Secours, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the City of Richmond, and others — have come together, engaging with residents and collectively addressing East End resident's articulated food access, health, economic, and education challenges,” said Cynthia Newbille, councilwoman for Richmond’s East End 7th Voter District.

The Sarah Garland Jones Center, which Bon Secours opened this fall, offers health programming such as nutrition education, group-based therapy sessions for a range of community health issues, including adolescent mental health and substance abuse, as well as community health education and training in workforce development, youth enrichment, and neighborhood engagement. VCU is collaborating with Bon Secours to ensure that the two health systems coordinate their efforts to understand and meet the community’s needs. VCU’s services will be unique for the area and complement rather than duplicate those offerings already in place.