A Beacon of Community Hope: Light on the Hill at Mount Wesley

By Solomon Collins & The DASH Program Office

 

BACKGROUND

As a National Program Office (NPO) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Data Across Sectors for Health (DASH), works with communities across the country to build local capacity for multi-sector collaborations and data sharing efforts to inform an evidenced-based national movement toward a Culture of Health. The Community Impact Contracts (CIC) funding program offers access to direct technical assistance, targeted funds, subject matter expertise, and a supported peer cohort working together to pursue equity and increase sustainable community capacity to lead and leverage data system development.

DASH is proud to support projects that center communities and work to eliminate structural inequity through multisector, data sharing efforts. Light on the Hill at Mount Wesley, a CIC awardee, exemplifies what it truly means to be a catalyst for others in understanding the endless possibilities for what happens when you share data.

Light on the Hill at Mount Wesley, a faith-based 501(c)(3) public charity devoted to improving community health based in Kerrville, Texas, is a shining example. Six ministries located on the campus offer services related to healthcare and health-related needs: Kerr Konnect (an on-call volunteer driver service for young and elderly adults), Families and Literacy (educational programs including the area’s only GED prep course program), the Mustard Seed Food Pantry, an Education and Exercise Center, a Nutrition Center, and Wesley Nurse (the largest 80+ site outreach program in South Texas). They used their CIC award to purchase licenses for a platform to help them see where the coordinated services they offer were most needed, and where they made an impact.

In Kerrville, about 1 out of 5 people lack health insurance. The average income in Kerrville is $29,685 per person with 13% of the community living in poverty. Many households that Light on the Hill serve have an annual income as low as $10,000. The COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters have made disparities worse, causing more stress for families, resulting in a greater need for Light on the Hill’s services. Millie Goode, President of both the Kerr County Interagency Network and the Light on the Hill Board of Directors, works as the Project Director for their DASH CIC Cohort funded project, Pathways to Health and Wholeness. As a retired teacher and “super volunteer,” she knows just how important these programs are to people, and how important technology can be in coordinating and sustaining their community-based efforts.

MEETING COMMUNITY NEEDS WITH COMMUNITY RESOURCES

 

“One of the things that we have is a hotline here at Light on the Hill, where people can call in and say, ‘I need food’ or whatever other resource it is,” Goode said. Once a referral is received over the hotline, the Outreach Director, On-site Administrator, or Wesley Nurse makes connections with the appropriate resource services through the Kerr County Inter-Agency Network or other partnering organizations. Goode said that following up to check on the outcomes of these referrals is key not only to helping them make sure people’s needs are met, but also to showing where the greatest needs or gaps exist. Light on the Hill’s volunteer base of 250+ people provides invaluable assistance with food relief efforts, campus improvements, and other outreach ministries.

Light on the Hill serves people from towns around Kerrville like Rock Springs, Center Point, Junction – people who may need to travel as far as 60 to 75 miles to receive services, according to Beth Palmer, the Outreach Director for Light on the Hill and Kerrville First United Methodist Church. Palmer said these kinds of commutes impact how they think about both outreach and accessibility. “If there’s no transportation, then how do we get to them; it’s always on our mind – how we can serve the ones that need the help,” Palmer said. Karen Burkett, Founder of Kerr Konnect, and the support of the Kerr County Inter-Agency Network, created Kerr Konnect to match volunteer drivers with people who cannot access public or affordable transportation to visit the doctor, grocery store or a food pantry. And the team brings this approach to other programs like their Transitional Housing Initiative.

According to Palmer, transitional housing remains as one of the top needs in the area. Even though the community has a homeless shelter, it only offers a 3-night stay limit which is not enough to meet local demand. “The school district and other agencies were contacting us, saying ‘how can you help – I have a single mom and her two kids, and they’ve been living in their car in the parking lot of Walmart,” she said. “And it would break our hearts because we don’t have that resource”, said Palmer. Light on the Hill started the initiative to give people safe and clean housing for 6 to 12 months depending on their case. Palmer also said that while their model is not free, rent will be paid on a sliding scale based on the family or person’s income to help people save money for permanent housing. “They will have [the] first month’s rent deposit, utilities deposit, all of those things to set up their next more permanent home,” she said.

Helping people get better holistic health outcomes through community outreach and service is a core principle of Light on the Hill’s mission. Doing so reveals complex ways that community conditions impact health: such as when people have difficulty accessing healthcare or when parents have to choose between going to work or attending parenting classes. Theresa Standage, a Wesley nurse with Methodist Healthcare Ministries, currently teaches parenting classes through telehealth adapted to parent’s schedules and provides home delivery of diapers, food, and other basic items.

Many parents have barriers, such as work schedules, lack of transportation, and childcare that would otherwise prevent them from attending traditional classes. Standage builds trusting relationships and gets insights into people’s diverse needs. For example, a mom who participated in the class had other children in the household who needed food, but she was too shy to ask. According to Standage, food for the household and baby products were her biggest worries. Shortly after, Standage took food for the household and baby diapers to the mother’s home to follow up with her.

“She was just so grateful,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten two phone calls from her saying, ‘you don’t know what this meant to me’.” According to Goode, this level of commitment from volunteers and staff alike is what makes their success achievable. Her advice is – do the groundwork of building relationships first.

“We have people that are passionate about helping others,” she said, “we couldn’t do it without that [support].” For Light on the Hill, interagency collaboration has been key to getting people resources when they need them. Kerr County Inter-Agency Network maintains a directory with agency contact information, days and hours of service, and resource eligibility criteria listed. “But that took years, so one of my things that I say [is]: do the groundwork of building relationships and establishing partnerships first,” Goode said. “Don’t get the grant and then wonder, ‘how am I going to get this done in a year or 6 months or whenever?” With the help of DASH funding, Light on the Hill was able to obtain a cloud-based data sharing mechanism to track: 1) outcomes of people receiving services and 2) data on the type, impact, and number of services received.

According to Goode, Light on the Hill built its current level of interagency connection in 7 years. Now, the group collaborates to serve people in some of Kerrville’s most underserved areas like the predominately African American Doyle community to create a community garden, surveys and projects that aim to create a sustainable, thriving area.

BUILDING BRIDGES & COMMITTING TO COMMUNITIES

 

“In the beginning, I did interviews with residents that lived there and just got to know them,” Standage said, “community members said we are forgotten, people don’t even know where we are.” She said that the co-creation of the community garden led by Doyle resident, Reverend Noah of Barnett Chapel, turned a dream into reality – creating a wave of success and change in the neighborhood, which led to Light on the Hill helping them create their own food pantry. As a result, the community has gone from “hidden to front page news in the newspaper”.

“We actually created a storyboard with them to track their story,” Standage said, “and when some residents look at it, they become emotional seeing the change that has happened in their neighborhood.” According to Standage, the community has had a history of broken promises from disappearing figures. She also said that the willingness of Light on the Hill to hear their side of the story has made a world of difference to Doyle’s residents.

The new additions to their area have also brought political change and increased visibility for the locals in Doyle. According to Palmer, major figures in government like the mayor, the city manager, and hospital representatives are coming to the table at Doyle in resident-led meetings. “That was a huge shift in, I would say, power and also representation.” Palmer noted that the city’s senior advisory committee recently appointed a health navigator from Doyle – making it the first time a person of color has been on the committee since its inception. “Just little incremental changes like that mean big things in the Doyle neighborhood,” Palmer said, “and the changes are being reflected in the community’s new attitude toward both itself and ownership of its assets.”

According to Goode, the increased ownership has made the community feel more empowered since historic practices such as zoning have kept people from passing on possession of stores and other assets to future generations. “When you start shining a light on what’s going on – you can use that to leverage some change,” she said, “not only for grants but also within the city government.”

Overall, the Doyle community and greater Kerrville area have won many small victories for better community health – something that Goode attributes to Light on the Hill’s focus on relationship building. “I think it was the desire to help people and to build relationships; we’re very much about [that] – everything we do is to build a relationship,” Goode said.

To see more of Light on the Hill’s inspiring community work, follow them or Kerrville First United Methodist Church on social media, their website, or join their email list. For more information about DASH, including funding programs like CIC Cohort, please visit the DASH website.