COALITION HELPS COMMUNITY, HEART, BODY AND SOUL By Christine Rowett In her office overlooking East Monument Street, Diane Becker has a collection of photos taken in the neighborhood: a couple playing checkers, a group of children in the street. She doesn't know their names, but smiles at their faces. "There's far more good than bad in our community," she said. "I wish the world knew that." Dr. Becker, an associate professor in the School of Medicine, is a founding member of Heart, Body and Soul, a union of medical professionals, religious leaders and volunteers dedicated to the health and well-being of the community. The 5-year-old coalition is more of a partnership than a service organization. Each group has input to such projects as disease screenings, substance abuse centers and community outreach programs. Volunteer residents are trained and sent back into the neighborhood to promote healthy living. There are currently three prevention and health resource centers, and plans for two more in the near future. Heart, Body and Soul began as an extension of the Center for Health Promotion in the School of Medicine and Clergy United for Renewal, or CURE, in East Baltimore. Together, they had compiled alarming statistics about the people living in the area. Fifty-six percent of men aged 18-25 had been arrested, 34 percent of the people had incomes below the poverty level and 30 percent of the households received public assistance. Eighty-six percent of the residents were African American. The situation "is partly a function of racism. If we say it isn't, we're lying," Dr. Becker said. "It's a racist society that structures economics, and if 75 percent of income goes to housing and 25 percent to clothing, food and other expenses, where does health care fit into that?" The statistics also revealed that 65 percent of the population attended church regularly, and 80 percent had some affiliation with a church. The Rev. Herbert Watson, former chairman of Project BLESS, Baltimore Leading Everyone to be Safe and Smoke Free, is the current chairman of Heart, Body and Soul. "As we came to the table, each group brought something that separately we did not have," Watson said. "We are better for the community together than we are apart." The original board consisted of four East Baltimore clergymen and Dr. Becker. "We shared a vision," she said. "And it was not Hopkins taking care of the community." In fact, the Hopkins affiliation was downplayed in the beginning, to convince neighborhoods they could take care of themselves without the backing of a large institution. Dr. Becker, the only Hopkins professional currently on Heart, Body and Soul's board of directors, said the partnership works because all involved gain something. While working with clergy members, she received attention "that I never would have had just coming from Hopkins," she said. The affiliation has also helped the hospital. "Traditionally, Hopkins was not always seen as active in the community," Watson said, "We were studied, but did not always benefit from Hopkins being here." Initially, Dr. Becker admitted, there were some who doubted her motives. "One of the first ministers I dealt with said, 'We've had enough of you white do-gooders here. What right does a white matron have to come here?'" she said. Though the minister's words "infuriated" her, they served as inspiration. "Those incidents happen to members of the black community thousands of times," she said. "How are you supposed to feel about yourself after that?" Another hurdle was a language barrier created when Dr. Becker and members of the community defined the same words differently. "To me, trust meant that our intentions were right, that if we couldn't do something right away, we will do it when we can," she explained. "Trust to people in this community means that you'll deliver. I meant intention, they meant action. "We can afford to have long-range vision, to say 'hang in there,'" she said. "The community can't afford that. Short-range goals are what they can hold on to." The tensions, Watson said, actually served a purpose. "All the parties concerned are able to get another view," he said. "A better view." Thirty years ago, Dr. Becker graduated from nursing school and went to work in surgical intensive care at Hopkins. She did not like what she saw. "It bothered me a lot to see the violence, always the receiving end of it," she said. It bothered her enough to send her back to school at Hopkins, where she got her master's in 1979 and her doctorate in public health in 1984. She met CURE president Pastor Marshall Prentice "by accident" in 1989, and the alliance that now includes 250 churches was formed. One result of Heart, Body and Soul's work is a change in curriculum at two area schools. Ministerial students at St. Mary's Seminary and University now take health-care courses, and medical students at Hopkins learn community skills as part of their degree. The coalition recently presented a national model of the organization to a symposium at the Urban Medical Institute at Harlem Hospital. And they gave their successful anti-smoking program to the American Lung Association, which implemented it in 15 cities across the country. "We feel a real responsibility to sharing what we've learned," Dr. Becker said. In June Dr. Becker received the American Heart Association's Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award for outstanding service in minority communities. "There are still white people who say African Americans should pull themselves up, and black people who say stay out of it," Dr. Becker said, undaunted. "But I have every right to do this. This is my community, and my commitment is to my community." Dr. Becker's family--her husband and 20-year-old daughter, a student at Brown University--have long been active in Heart, Body and Soul events. Most families and spouses of staff and volunteers do get involved, Dr. Becker said. "We love what we do, so who we love gets drawn into it," she said. Still, one of the group's goals is self-reliance and autonomy in the community. "The best thing that will happen is when they don't need me on a day-to-day basis," she said. "That's painful for me...it's almost time to let go." Watson says that time is coming. "The community can indeed heal itself," he said. "We can and will take more responsibility for that healing."
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