Pontiac's good health includes the whole community

For 17 years, Sarah Pauling has lived at the Village of Oakland Woods, a senior complex on Opdyke Road in Pontiac. In good weather, she'd like to walk or ride her motorized wheelchair to businesses on nearby South Boulevard.


But it's just not that simple.


"In order for us to get to them, we have to walk or ride across the street to the Auburn Hills side to use the sidewalk," says Pauling. "There are very dangerous drivers on Opdyke that go really fast. I've had some close calls, almost getting hit."


Walking groups feel confined by the lack of sidewalks, and friends don’t leave the complex at all. "If we could walk outside, it would really be nice," Pauling says.


For some time, a healthy life has been elusive for many Pontiac residents, not just seniors. It's a vehicle-centric city, with wide, difficult-to-cross roads that are unfriendly to bicycles. Existing sidewalks are often overgrown, and fresh food is not always easily accessible.


"There are different socioeconomics in Pontiac, compared to Oakland County as a whole," says Jennifer Kirby, chief of community health promotion and intervention at the Oakland County Health Division. "We see different health disparities. There is chronic disease, barriers to accessing healthy food, and a higher poverty rate."


But a host of community partners, including social service agencies, educational organizations, churches, hospitals, local governments, and other nonprofits are working to make Pontiac an easy place to live a healthy life.


"Pontiac is in a reemergence of energy. There are so many efforts going on and people collaborating toward the same goals," says Kirby, who coordinates a partner-based, grant-funded, six-year-old initiative called Healthy Pontiac, We Can, or HPWC.


So if you spot a health-focused sign, program or improvement around town, chances are HPWC had a part in it.


"It's exciting to see environmental changes in Pontiac, things that aren't just traditional health education," says Kirby. "We're changing the setting and adding promotion on top of that. A lot of people are committed to Pontiac, especially healthy lifestyle-wise."


The collaboration boosts a health-focused vibe for Pontiac residents, says Oakland University associate professor of health sciences Jennifer Lucarelli, Ph.D.


"We help create good policies to be adopted by the city that will lead to systems and environments that will promote wellbeing," she says.


Here's how various community partners are working to improve health for all Pontiac residents:


Get out and play


Free, safe, educational programs for kids is the idea behind Sheriff PAL or police athletic league. Last year, 600 kids aged four to 14, 98 percent Pontiac residents, played basketball, T-ball, baseball, soccer, volleyball or practiced cheer, dance or tumbling, coached by volunteers at facilities across Pontiac. Forty middle- and high-schoolers connected with mentors.


Launched in 2015, the program runs with support from Oakland University, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, U.S. Soccer Foundation, the City of Pontiac, Woodside Bible Church, Welcome Missionary Baptist Church, and others, according to director Ryan Russell.


"This year, we want to serve a million kids, but realistically, it’ll be about 1,000," says Russell, who is also the pastor at Woodside Bible Church.


"Kids deserve programming, and our families deserve it. I want families to be unified," Russell says, highlighting the bond that can form when community and law enforcement get together. PAL actively seeks volunteer coaches and provides full training.


Pontiac has 29 parks


When Kathalee James retired from GM in 2008, she wanted to help her community. In 2012, she formed Friends of the Pontiac Parks Association, now an eight-member group that coordinates community-driven park cleanups.


A recent effort leveraged Leaders of the Future to gather 120 volunteers to clean, lay mulch, cut grass and manicure playscapes in five parks.


"We provide a level of detail that a lot of times the city doesn’t have the staff to do," says James, who is group president. "We want world-class parks that everyone in our city can be proud to go to, and we are moving toward that."


In April, the Friends received a $39,000 neighborhood empowerment grant from the city, and will install a new playscape in Optimist Park, and put a table and benches at Argyle Park.


"Planning events in parks and doing positive things, that’s community health. We are getting more participation, particularly from the city. They are really picking up now and showing a lot more interest," James says.


Safe streets


Walking, running and biking are treacherous in a city designed primarily for vehicle traffic. Oakland University, Oakland County Planning, and HPWC recognized residents as the experts and garnered their input for a 10-year comprehensive non-motorized plan called Complete Streets, adopted in January 2017.


"We are working with the city to identify projects that are in the design phase or are being planned," says Kristen Wiltfang, senior planner with economic development and community affairs at Oakland County.


Saginaw Street north of the Woodward Loop is under lane reduction to accommodate bicycle lanes in each direction. Workdays brought neighbors and volunteers together to remove overgrown vegetation on sidewalks along South Boulevard.


This summer, a group of Oakland University health sciences and honors college students will imbed in the community to gather feedback for improvements to the parks and recreation master plan, says Oakland University’s Jennifer Lucarelli.


"This encourages people to walk and bike in the city for health reasons," says Wiltfang. "It can reduce chronic diseases and improve social connections, even by making small trips to the grocery by bike or on foot. We really encourage people to get out and get active and maintain a healthy lifestyle."


Healthy eats, too


Most Saturdays the past seven years, the rectory garage at All Saints’ Episcopal Church transforms into a pop-up farmer’s market, selling potatoes, peppers, onions, oranges, apples, and much more at prices generally 30 percent lower than the average grocery.


Simple recipes and regular tastings led by an Oakland County Health Department nutrition educator during the summer encourage healthy eating. A grant from HPWC helped buy display units and a commercial refrigerator, says market co-chair Robert Dawson.


"When the county is here they bring a Spanish speaker so that we can build the Spanish-speaking community. It’s probably the most underserved community in Pontiac," Dawson says. One in four in Pontiac is Latino.


Avocados, mangos, and jicama, favored by the Spanish-speaking population are healthy and often available at the market, says Sonia Acosta, president and CEO of Centro Multicultural La Familia, a social service agency and longstanding HPWC partner.


"People like our holistic health approach," says Acosta. Zumba, soccer, and fitness complement mental health services. "A person may be bilingual, but when in crisis, they feel more comfortable speaking in their own language."


Events conducted bilingually are welcome for a population that still struggles to feel at home, Acosta says. Partnership with HPWC means Latinos aren't left out of health boosting efforts.


"We aren't there yet, but the collaborations are helping to make that happen."


Care for all


Even routine medical care can seem out of reach for the uninsured, but all are welcome at eight Pontiac Oakland Integrated Healthcare Network, or OIHN, clinics.


Federally funded, OIHN’s clinics are staffed by family practice physicians or nurse practitioners, dentists and social workers. They see about 10,000 new patients each year. In its fifth year, OIHN has four primary care clinics, one dental center, and three school-based health centers in Pontiac High School, Pontiac Middle School, and in partnership with Oakland County Children’s Village.


OIHN’s Family Medicine Center in Pontiac General Hospital is partnered with the hospital residency program, and OIHN will launch a similar site with McLaren Oakland at the Baldwin Family Medical Center on May 30, says Scott Stewart, marketing and development manager.


OIHN helps people get the care they need, even if they can't afford to pay.


"Those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, would go to the ER when they felt bad. It was the only thing they knew," Stewart says. "That's why our model is so important. We are helping get people out of the emergency rooms as their sole focus of primary care."


Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.
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