Barrier Breakers: Center for Black Women’s Wellness

In the shadow of Turner Field and Downtown Atlanta is the neighborhood of Mechanicsville. It’s bounded by I-20 to the north, the I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector to the east, and the Southern Railway lines to the southwest. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, founded as a multi-ethnic community of working- and middle-class families.

Mechanicsville Community Sign

Photograph on the first floor of the Dunbar Recreation Center of the Mechanicsville sign.

Today, Mechanicsville is marked by urban blight and crime. However, amid the vacant shop fronts and poverty is a beaming ray of hope: the Center for Black Women’s Wellness, situated on the third floor of the Dunbar Recreation Center, arguably the nucleus of the community.

With a budget of just $2 million, CBWW’s small staff improves the lives of roughly 5,000 women each year. It offers programs and services that touch on issues including teen pregnancy prevention, youth development, maternal and child health services, micro-business training, and even healthful cooking classes. Healthcare services are also offered through its two exam rooms, using paid and volunteer staff.

Rahkia Williams

Rahkia Williams, CBWW family support worker, in the waiting room.

Family support worker Rahkia Williams describes the center’s holistic approach this way: “We are the barrier breakers,” she told me over a cup of coffee in one of the classrooms. “If you don’t have your GED, you can go downstairs and get your GED. If you don’t know what steps you need to take to build your baby’s brain, we have a class for that. If you need fellowship, we have Sisterhood. If you need leadership, we have Sisters With Voices.”

Rahkia works for Atlanta Healthy Start, a key initiative of the center that focuses on the health of women during and beyond pregnancy. She has a caseload of 40 women whom she visits in their homes every month. It’s her job to help them navigate the system, prioritize their lives, and work toward healthy goals for themselves and their families. The women are enrolled in the program roughly from their first trimester through the child’s second year.

For a drug abuser, the goal list might begin with crisis management—to get off drugs; for a homeless woman, to find shelter; for a woman with a job, a better job and the ability to pay for childcare. If a woman needs transportation to get to prenatal visits, the center arranges for it. Or if she has no family support, her support worker might go with her to these important appointments to reassure her and model how to advocate for herself. All goals are specific to the individual woman, with the initiative’s ultimate goal to reduce infant mortality in the community and improve the health of women and babies.

Although Rahkia’s children are now 27 and 25, she empathizes with her clients—she too was a 19-year-old single mother, without resources or the knowledge of how to get them. She struggled to get basic needs met. When she was pregnant with her second child, she says, she went to just two prenatal checkups because she was alone, broke, and angry at herself for getting pregnant again.

Birth control? Where to get it, and how to get through all of the insurance red tape and cost often aren’t priorities when you’re living a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling just to keep your head above water.

Mural at Dunbar Recreation Center lobby

Collage depicting Mechanicsville residents in Dunbar Recreation Center lobby.

“In Georgia, if you don’t have insurance and you’re pregnant, you’re covered,” said CBWW President & CEO Jemea Dorsey. “It’s when you’re not pregnant that’s a problem. If you’re eligible for a tax subsidy under the Affordable Care Act, through one of the [insurers] on the exchange, that’s something we want people to know about. The case manager helps navigate all of that.”

The center also does health screenings for things like HIV/AIDS and breast cancer through an intricate network of partnerships. Last year, for example, nine cases of breast cancer were detected through the mobile unit that pulls up to the center’s parking lot every month. The 200 screenings done each year get funded through local foundations such as Komen Atlanta and It’s The Journey Inc., and the unit is provided through a partnership with Emory-St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Jemea points out that there’s a strong correlation between poverty and poor health.

What makes the center unique, Jemea notes, isn’t just the health care center–equally important is providing access to resources such as fresh vegetables, and “teaching people about healthy lifestyles looking at the health of a woman before, during, and after pregnancy.”

They also focus on the health of young people. “We have teens who serve on a Youth Leadership Council, and they get training about teen pregnancy and HIV prevention, and they go out and do community events and talk to other youth,” Jemea said. “It’s that multiplier effect. We impact a small cadre and then they’re impacting the broader community while gaining leadership skills.” (Check out the center’s short film Risky Behaviors.)

Many clients find the center by word of mouth. The center also has a small outreach staff that attends community events and that goes to Grady’s prenatal clinic every week. Women find the center through partnerships with local organizations as well.

But center personnel want to do more—they’re currently raising money to increase the number of exam rooms from two to seven, add a dedicated patient consultation space, relocate and expand the administrative offices, and update and add state-of-the-art medical equipment to the space they have called home for 28-years. The new exam rooms will allow the center to increase the number of patients it sees for women’s health care from eight per day in the clinic to 45, and to increase the number of patients seen for primary healthcare (offered through volunteers) from 250 to 1,000 per year. After the third year in operation, the center will be able to handle 9,360 patient visits per year.

CBWW Expansion-73

Stephanie Johnson Hardy, Chief of Staff to Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell; CBWW President & CEO Jemea Dorsey; Board President, Anna Avelino; and Board Member and President of Eastwood Real Estate Services, Lee Eastwood

CBWW Board Member Lee Eastwood says $300,000 has already been committed through fundraising efforts; now they’re seeking the remaining $900,000 to build the five exam rooms.

One indication of the center’s success is the number of clients who want to come back after “graduation” and volunteer to share their stories of hope, standing as positive proof that just because you start out in poverty doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Stories of people who gave back to the center abound: a young man who went on to Morehouse and became a pediatrician, then returned to work in the community; a high school teacher; the list goes on.

Meet Paulette Jones

Paulette Jones

CBWW client Paulette Jones as a student at Clark Atlanta University, where she started Talk of Fame 101 magazine.

CBWW client Paulette Jones, 24, grew up in Detroit as the only child of a single mother and an absent father. “My mom worked two jobs to provide for me and make sure we had food and clothes and things of that nature,” said Paulette, who made time to speak with me at the center amid a busy schedule that includes a husband, a 15-month-old baby boy, and a full-time job as a dispatcher for the Georgia State Patrol.

Paulette moved here in 2010 to attend Clark Atlanta University. While in school she started her own magazine, Talk of Fame 101, and did personal interviews with celebrities and entrepreneurs in the city. She said she used the magazine to change minds–to push back against perceptions of a universal college partying culture and show that some students were serious about learning and business and helping others. She gave up the magazine in her senior year to make sure she graduated on time, which she did in May 2014 with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration.

After college, Paulette was set to go to Nicaragua with the Peace Corps and teach a business course in Spanish. (“At heart, I think I’m Latin American,” she said brightly. “I love Spanish!”)

But Paulette’s plans were derailed just a few months after graduation, when she came to the center for routine annual tests and discovered she was pregnant. “When I got here, they were very warm and friendly—I felt like I was around family; I didn’t feel awkward talking to them or asking them questions,” she recalled.

From there, Paulette was introduced to the Atlanta Healthy Start program and assigned to 10-year-veteran case manager Tekesia Shields, or Miss TK as she’s known around the center. The two began the process of setting goals that would help the young woman learn how to get all of the things she needed to take care of herself and the growing life inside her. The baby’s father, Vernal Jones, also attended co-parenting classes at the center.

Today, baby Tristan lives with his parents in a lovely three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a “much better” neighborhood in McDonough. They had been living in a one-bedroom apartment in Downtown Atlanta. Vernal and Paulette Jones were married on June 18.

Tekesia Shields

CBWW client Paulette Jones with family support worker Tekesia Shields

Tekesia is clearly proud of her young client. “Paulette is a very determined young lady,” she said. Not only was she very motivated, Tekesia added, she was also willing to accept all of the resources and support offered, things like learning about literacy, development, and being a new mother.

“She was very receptive to it, so … she was able to grow, to graduate from the program, and then to come back and share with other young ladies in our program how successful and how helpful the program was to her,” Tekesia said.

Paulette’s next big goal is to become even more involved as a volunteer. “I have a better understanding of what single moms go through, from getting assistance with food or diapers, or just a personal burden,” she said.

The Jones family

Tristan with his parents Vernal and Paulette Jones on their wedding day.

Words to inspire: “Be honest with yourself at all times,” Paulette advises. “Just follow your heart and follow your dreams. Don’t doubt yourself, because anything you put your mind to, you can do … no matter how big it is. … Don’t worry about what other people think or how they feel about you, because at the end of the day those people aren’t responsible for you, you are.”

Meet Jechiel Knox

Jecheil Knox

Jechiel Knox, a CBWW family support worker, is also a former client.

CBWW family support worker Jechiel Knox, 43, got her start at the center in 2008 as a client.

Jechiel grew up in New York, between Poughkeepsie, Kingston, and the Bronx. Her mother was busy going to school at Adelphi University, so Jechiel and her two siblings often fended for themselves. After graduation, her mother joined the Army, moving the family to El Paso, Texas, where Jechiel had her first child at 15.

When she was old enough to leave home, she moved back up North. There she met the man with whom she would have her second child at age 19. When she was 25, the couple had a daughter, but their lifestyle had become so “crazy” that she was ready to leave and begin again.

So she packed up her children and as much as she could in a U-Haul, drove to Atlanta, where she didn’t know anyone, and moved into the Mechanicsville Apartments, across from the Dunbar Rec Center.

“At first when I drove by, it was like, oh my God, this is a battlefield, this is so scary,” Jechiel said. “But then, when I moved here, I met great people.”

She came to the center for clinic services and enrolled in the Atlanta Healthy Start program, where she was assigned a family support worker, Catrina Williams. “She showed me all of the different resources that I have around me, which was just wonderful because I didn’t know which way to turn …”

“In New York, I never had to work—I was a kept woman with plenty of money, but here it was like, oh my God, so I’m going from having everything to having nothing—I had to leave three cars in New York—I didn’t even have enough money to put a hitch on the back of the U-Haul.”

Using the plan, she was able to find work (one of the first goals), put her kids in childcare and, with the help of the center’s resources, was able to go to school and become a medical administrative assistant. Three and a half years later, her family support worker tipped her off to a job opening at the center.

It was a perfect fit. “I wanted to give back and help somebody who helped me when I was down,” Jechiel said. “I’m just blessed that they’ve taken me aboard like this and just put so much into me.”

As a client, Jechiel also got counseling. “It boosted my self-esteem and my actual courage to grow up, because I didn’t know what that looked like. I’m doing things way different.”

Jecheil Knox

Jechiel Knox with her family today.

What’s different now? “I have peace. I can sleep at night, knowing that what I’m doing is my passion. I feel good that I’m helping other people feel better and doing better in their lives.” At home she says she has order and can take care of her children without stressing about how she’ll pay her bills. It also helps that they’re old enough now, at 29, 22, 16, 10, and 6, that she doesn’t have to worry about childcare.

She no longer lives in the Mechanicsville Apartments, though she commutes there every day from her home in a quiet, safe neighborhood in a suburb of Atlanta. And she delights in time spent with her three grandchildren, ages 10, 8, and 5.

Words to inspire: “Evaluate your situation and never give up, because you can’t finish unless you get it started,” Jechiel advises. “Never give up. My grandmother always said ‘Things don’t stay the same.’ And I’m a firm believer in [the idea that] it starts with you—only you can change your situation.”

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  • Annette Saldana

    What a beautiful testament to my long held belief that when given the opportunity, people will rise to the occasion and create a better life for themselves. Cheers to the courageous staff and volunteers for their incredible work. It blows my mind to think that we really have no idea the extent of how this will touch our lives and brighten the future for generations to come.

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