Healthy Communities Foundation combats health inequity in Cook County

BERWYN – People living in western Cook County, including Berwyn and Cicero, could have a lower life expectancy than those living in downtown Chicago, and the Healthy Communities Foundation is working to help close that 20-year gap.

A 2018 study by the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago looked at 27 western Cook County zip codes and found individuals in some of those communities face significant barriers to health equity.

The Healthy Communities Foundation partners with area nonprofit organizations that impact the social determinants of health by providing grants that help the nonprofits enhance services to improve the health and well-being of families, individuals and communities.

The North Riverside-based foundation is currently reviewing grant applications from nearly 160 area nonprofit groups that provide services or develop policy that help all populations achieve health and wellness equity. The foundation’s staff and Board of Directors will announce the grant recipients in December.

Board Chairwoman Grace Hou said the board receives recommendations from the foundation’s staff and then reviews the grant proposals through the “lens of the new strategic plan” before final decisions about the grants, which provide general operating support, are made.

“We’re looking for strong organizations that have authentic ties to the community and are working to improve the health and well-being of people in their communities through direct services or policy change,” Hou said. “We’re really excited to be in this community, and we want to respect where these funds came from and were purposed for, which is the geographic area around MacNeal Hospital. There are a lot of needs and opportunities that we can fulfill that the public sector is inadequately addressing.”

The Healthy Communities Foundation is a rebranding of the former Arthur Foundation, which originally was known as the MacNeal Hospital Foundation that was established in 1999 after the sale of the hospital to a private company. The foundation's endowments were funded by the proceeds of the hospital’s sale. In 2016, the Healthy Communities Foundation’s new board enhanced its mission, funding guidelines and vision that “all residents of our communities lead full, healthy and happy lives and enjoy equal life expectancy.”

Foundation President Maria Socorro Pesqueira said communities are stronger when the foundation works with the various nonprofits to improve health inequities. She explained the foundation supports the community’s needs and the work of community nonprofit partners.

“We’re able to select strong organizations that are providing needed services and that are addressing the social determinants of health, which are the various aspects that impact health like access to quality care, the environment, good housing and safe communities,” she said. “Just by living in a certain zip code, you could have 20 years less of life, and we want to change that. We want all individuals to have the opportunity to live healthy, full lives.”

In 2017, which was the first grant cycle, the foundation awarded more than $7.2 million in general operating support grants to 94 area nonprofits, including organizations that provide primary health care, behavioral health care, disability services and other human services.

“The foundation plans to support the region by looking at health access and health equality and address current needs and invest in long-term systemic change,” Pesqueira said. “The number of [nonprofits that we fund] will depend on the request, but we want to make sure we fund organizations that are aligned with the mission and vision of the Board of Directors.”