By William K. Alcorn
The William Swanston Charitable Fund’s mission to improve opportunities for vulnerable children, with a focus on reducing childhood obesity and its related health issues, is a “noble and difficult call,” said Susanna Krey, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.
Krey was keynote speaker for the Swanston fund’s fourth annual Innovations Conference, “Evolving Approaches to Youth Development,” on Wednesday at the Mill Creek MetroParks’ D.D. and Velma Davis Education and Visitor Center at Fellowship Riverside Gardens in Mill Creek Park.
The conference also included a panel discussion, table discussions on ”Opportunities and Options in the Mahoning Valley,” and workshops.
In her address, Krey described how the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, which she said is relatively small with annual giving of about $2.2 million, positively impacted one of the most-impoverished areas in Cleveland, and how the Swanston fund might employ similar strategies to deal with childhood obesity in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Childhood obesity and associated health problems, such as Type 2 adult-onset diabetes, is the primary focus of the Swanston fund, said Atty. Paul M. Dutton, fund chairman.
Krey said success starts with a having one “big idea,” being willing to take risks, and realizing that “turning big ideas into reality often has less to do with money and more to do with commitment, partnership, calculated risk, authentic engagement and a willingness to listen and learn.”
She said the basic goal of the Sisters of Charity is to end chronic homelessness.”
To reach its goal, the Sisters of Charity homed in on a new permanent supportive public-housing model, Housing First, in which chronically homeless people were placed in stable, affordable housing with delivery onsite of voluntary social services to deal with the challenges faced by the homeless population.
From the first project in 2006, there are now 500 Housing First units in nine buildings in Cuyahoga County.
She said Sisters of Charity also formed partnerships with numerous organizations such as the local Office of Homeless Services and Enterprise Community Partners as well as champions across mental health services, property management, nonprofit developers and more to move their goal forward.
But most important when forming any big idea, she said, is including the voices of the area residents, which she urged her audience to do in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
"When we were planning another big idea related to urban agriculture, residents told us that healthy food is not easy to get, store or prepare, and further, that health is not as big a priority as jobs and long-standing unemployment," Krey said.
She said that through efforts to "green" Central Neighborhood, the Sisters focused on strategies that could bring fresh produce into the neighborhood, and as a byproduct, bring jobs to the neighborhood.
They started by giving $15,000 to a group of men who wanted to develop an urban farm in an 80-acre parcel on Cleveland’s near east side.
The property now has four hoop houses growing produce year-round, two greenhouses, a vermiculture and composting site, and a 1,000-watt solar station.
“She showed what you can do even if you don’t get funding. Don’t stop. Instead use it as a catalyst to see if there is another path you can follow,” said Jill Merolla, supervisor of community outreach and community development for Warren City Schools.
“Krey showed you must think outside the box; but the most important step is getting information on what the target population wants and what they feel they need,” said Ilene K. Dixon, program director for Youngstown Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program.