We have seen major changes during the past 27 years. In our early years, we fought to restore health care services at the former St. Anne’s Hospital facility and to keep Bethany Hospital open. Both of these objectives were met through the collaboration and hard work of so many community organizations. In those early years, none of us were paid for the two years we worked on these projects. In 1990, when we formed the corporation, we were gaining a national reputation as a group which could save hospitals, which were closing all over the country. We neither wanted nor deserved the reputation and quickly began meeting with community people to shape our identity. Our hope was to give community people a voice, believing that community people themselves knew what was best. I made a commitment to work based on their ideas, regardless of funding or a paycheck.
The people said five important steps were needed to improve the community. Their major priority was the elimination of drug sales in the community. They didn’t think this was possible until more jobs were created and they felt that more businesses were necessary to create jobs. They were concerned about the decline in moral values among youth reflected in the open disrespect on the streets and in the classrooms. They were concerned about the isolation and lack of relationships among neighbors; several had “remembered when everybody looked after each other,” and helped with each other’s children.
We followed the community’s leadership and worked with five hospitals and four high schools to create 290 paid internships for youth in entry level health care jobs. The program and staff were incorporated into the Board of Education’s structure and WHA now operates a full employment program in partnership with the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Department of Corrections.
We identified neighborhood businesses and assisted them with identifying contracting opportunities to access more than $10 million dollars in new contracts. These businesses now operate through a network organized by WHA, and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which provides updates about building projects and other development opportunities in Austin and throughout Chicago.
To promote positive norms and values among the youth, and to improve civic engagement, WHA began block organizing in 1994. We targeted blocks in Police Beat 1534, which surrounds our facility and quickly began to identify Citizen Leaders, who were anxious for a change, and willing to work. We engaged more than 600 community residents in community improvement projects. They worked with the police on the CAPS program, at the YMCA as tutors or coaches, ran community gardens, taught sewing to youth and seniors, mentored gang members, organized grandparents clubs at three elementary schools, coached little leagues, coordinated a farmer’s market, shared computers, gave spiritual guidance and more. They demonstrated their commitment and love for Austin, when they raised the first $60,000 to build the Austin Wellness Center. I am humbled and honored by their commitment.