Healthy Kids Resource Fair Opens Doors to Good Health

Presently, more than 70,000 Chicago Public Schools students who are eligible for health insurance lack coverage. That’s 20 percent of students in one of the largest school districts in the country.

Through a new initiative called Opening Doors, United Way of Metro Chicago and CPS aim to reduce that number. By directly connecting families to healthcare navigators,  they’re able to help parents research, identify and enroll in health insurance plans. This approach effectively simplifies a process that often deters low-income families from accessing vital care. 

With a goal of enrolling 10,000 students in Medicaid and Marketplace health insurance over the next two years, United Way and CPS, in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, hosted on Saturday its first Healthy Kids Resource Fair. This free event allowed neighborhood  students and their families to meet with navigators and explore other health and household resources.

Stationed in Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin, booths of more than a dozen non-profits and businesses lined the hallways, offering a range of services and information. Vendors were on hand to help attendees with everything from reducing utility costs to counseling to enrolling families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“One of the greatest challenges with closing the gap between eligible and enrolled children and families has been limited enrollment staff within schools and a lack of accessible enrollment sites across many communities,” said Jose Rico, senior vice president of Community Impact at United Way of Metro Chicago. “The Opening Doors Initiative is enabling us to widen our reach across neighborhoods and provide increased opportunities for enrollment education and assistance.”


Promoting healthy lifestyles

As part of the resource fair, Matt Forte, a former Chicago Bears football player and United Way ambassador, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository teamed up to teach students, including athletes from Michele Clark High School and community members, the importance of adapting a healthy lifestyle.

While whipping up a kale and apple salad in a cooking demo, Matt broke down the benefits of making healthy food choices, like adding dark greens into your diet to improve energy and reduce deadly health conditions like heart disease. “It’s important to educate these kids on how important health is,” Matt said. “Unfortunately, in the Chicago area, the resources and educational aspect of healthy eating and living is not so prevalent in certain communities.” 

Matt’s lessons of football and healthy lifestyles were well-received by the young athletes in the audience, including Lamont Pringle, a student basketball player at Michele Clark High School. “I learned new things about kale and new ways to use it,” Lamont said before heading back to the court. “It was helpful, and it’ll help me improve my game. And it actually tasted good.”

Following the demo, community members were sent home with samples, apples and recipes to make the salad and other healthy dishes at home.

As the newest United Way of Metro Chicago ambassador, Matt is excited to work with United Way and CPS to promote healthy living in communities that often lack access to quality goods and to improve the number of students and parents enrolled in healthcare. A father of three and long-time athlete, Matt views access to healthcare as the foundation for educational and life success.

“Some students don’t see doctors for an entire year or they don’t have a healthcare provider. That translates back to graduation rates and being attentive in class,” Matt said. “If you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to perform well no matter what you’re doing, whether that’s sports or education.”

Those within the school system share similar sentiments.

“Children  with unaddressed vision, dental, hearing or mental health problems do not perform in school as well as they could, said CPS Chief Health Officer Dr. Kenneth L. Fox “We want to prevent health problems from occurring and eliminate health-related barriers to learning. We must act to get kids covered, and Opening Doors helps us take action in ways that matter now and have profound impact over a student’s life course.”


Looking forward to healthier futures

United Way and CPS recognize that there’s still much work to be done. The Opening Doors Initiative is focused on four networks with the greatest need – Networks 1, 2, 3 and 10 – where additional trained healthcare navigators are serving children and families in schools and community-based organizations.

At United Way, we believe that schools should be “community hubs” were students and families can find life supports in addition to a quality education. The Opening Doors Initiative is intended to meet families where they are, and, in turn, make healthcare enrollment more accessible than ever to these communities.

“We see schools as a community engagement hub, a location where community can come in and be serviced in many different aspects – not just through educational curriculum but anything from enrollment in health insurance to behavioral health services,” said Sergio Obergon, manager of CPS’ Children and Family Benefits Unit in the Office of Student Health and Wellness.


Healthcare Navigators Help Enrollees Steer Clear of Insurance Confusion

Copayments. Deductibles. Premiums. The complex world of health insurance coverage can be confusing for even the most informed patients. But for immigrants, refugees and other underserved populations, our country’s healthcare system is particularly daunting.

In a city where 10.5 percent of people lack health insurance coverage, United Way of Metro Chicago community partners are turning to healthcare navigators to help reduce barriers to healthcare access.

“Health insurance is just something completely different and complex,” said Dalia Galvan Morales, manager of Health Access and Immigration and Refugee Services at Heartland Health Centers, a United Way community partner.

“[It’s] very complicated for anyone, but our target population is immigrants and refugees. Coming from a different country and experimenting with this whole new system can add an additional layer of difficulty,” she said. “Having someone you can trust and identify with makes people a little bit more likely to seek services that they need.”

That’s where Zinah Kadhim, a 36-year-old from the suburbs, comes in. She’s one of a few navigators working for Heartland Health Centers on Chicago’s North Side. An immigrant from Iraq, Zinah seeks to help new communities – immigrants, refugees and asylees – understand America’s intricate healthcare system.  

“I like [my work] so much because we are helping many families that really need the help,” Zinah said. “They’ve got a lot of papers mailed to them and they don’t know what they mean. We are helping them and educating them about the health system here.”

On any given day, Zinah and her colleagues, including Stephanie Castrejon, respond to pressing healthcare questions, field client calls and facilitate up to 30 appointments at their office.

Their clients typically need help determining which health insurance plans they’re eligible for, researching details of insurance plans and applying for or renewing their insurance coverage. Since 2013, through state, federal and private grant funding, United Way of Metro Chicago has helped facilitate over 26,000 enrollments in health coverage.

Healthcare navigators continue to offer support every step of the way, helping with anything from reviewing enrollment paperwork to filing appeals with the federal Department of Health. Even after someone has health coverage, navigators work to ensure that they have access to care by assisting clients in finding providers within their plan, scheduling appointments and ensuring medical cards are issued. They also offer referrals to other agencies that address a client’s outstanding needs.

Like Zinah, Stephanie, a 24-year-old native Chicagoan, takes great pride in connecting families to the coverage necessary for them to live their healthiest lives and protect themselves from devastating healthcare costs.

“I love working with the communities around me, the underserved population,” Stephanie said. “Especially since I grew up in a neighborhood like Albany Park where there are a lot of different cultures and people come from a lot of different countries.”

These community members often have difficulty finding information in their native languages and may lack health literacy, making it difficult to understand healthcare terminology and concepts – a struggle that exists for many residents. 

To break down those barriers, the healthcare navigators, who receive extensive hands-on training, offer services in multiple languages, assess clients’ level of understanding and work diligently to explain terminology in words and phrases that are easily understood.

“I’ve definitely learned that the health coverage system is not very user friendly. A lot of our clients who come in, English is not their first language. They have that language barrier already, and then understanding health coverage lingo. It’s pretty difficult,” Stephanie, an English and Spanish speaker, said.

By resolving these difficulties and teaching community members how to navigate this system, Zinah, Stephanie and their colleagues directly improve the lives of enrollees who can finally access the care they deserve.

“It really makes me feel good once I see that I’m able to explain [the healthcare system] to them and they’re able to understand and reassure themselves that they understand what’s going on,” Stephanie said. “Doing one simple thing for them goes a long way.”


Suburban Coalition Relieves Families of High Healthcare Costs

When Dave and Jana Jenkins decided to return to the United States in 2012 following 19 years of missionary work in Africa, the pair expected to face challenges. What the parents of five didn’t foresee was healthcare being a costly barrier to their assimilation back into American life.

“Most of our professional lives we’ve been missionaries and were overseas,” Jana said. “So, it’s been a little harder to get our start here in the U.S. Because of that, we’ve kind of fallen into a low-income family.”

With their son Timothy requiring surgery and care for a pre-existing condition, Dave and Jana, in 2015, sought help navigating the complex task of finding affordable health insurance. That’s when they connected with the DuPage Health Coalition, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner.

The coalition helped the family enroll in health insurance and, later, accepted them into its Silver Access Program to further reduce their healthcare costs.

“Our work is rooted in the belief that being poor should not be a barrier to being healthy,” said Karen Doyle, Director of Development & Communications for the DuPage Health Coalition.


The Jenkins Family

Dave and Timothy visiting Long Beach Island.

A family of seven, the Jenkins returned to America when their eldest daughter enrolled in college in Wheaton, Illinois. Wanting to live nearby, the family relocated to the Midwest and, eventually, settled in DuPage County.

The transition was challenging and, at times, required the parents to work numerous jobs to support their family.

“We did really well in Africa, and then we came to the States and we kind of fell into categories that made it difficult for us to find substantive employment,” Dave said. “At one point, between the two of us, we were doing four different jobs to pay the bills.”

In addition, it was nearly impossible for the family to find affordable health insurance that covered care related to Timothy’s cerebral palsy, a muscle condition that created nerve damage in his right hand.

“We fall into the category of self-employed, and I have a son with a disability. We would typically not be able to get insurance, or we would get insurance that was expensive and generally poor coverage,” Dave said.

In 2015, three years after their move, Dave connected to a healthcare navigator in DuPage County who walked him through the process of enrolling in health insurance. Together, they found a plan on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace that covered the family for about $54 per month. “I remember when we got done, I was just stunned,” Dave said. ‘It was like ‘Wow, I’ve never had such good coverage for so little.’”

Timothy runs track for the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association.

The following year, that cost fluctuated, rising to $300. Dave inquired about the DuPage Health Coalition’s healthcare assistance program and was soon approved for its Silver Access program. It proved to be incredibly necessary, as Timothy would soon undergo a surgery that greatly improved his quality of life.

“The cerebral palsy created nerve damage and the worst part of it is in his hand,” Dave said. “Without being able to grip anything, he can’t use any of his other muscles.”

“They cut here to extend the tendons in my [forearm,] so they could get my arm to go more like this,” Timothy, an athletic high schooler, added, straightening his bent wrist with his other hand. “[With the help of a brace,] I can use it a lot easier now. I can go to the gym and lift weights and stuff.”

Without their enrollment in Silver Access, the costly surgery and aftercare could’ve devastated the family’s finances, Dave said.

“We had been one of those families who don’t go to the doctor and everything that comes up causes this emotional fear,” he added. “Sometimes, you’d end up with medical bills that would take you a couple of years to pay off, but, [with Silver Access], it has been a completely different world for us.”


A “Silver” Lifeline

A unique initiative in Illinois, the Silver Access program has provided a vital lifeline for more than 1,000 individuals and families in DuPage County.

Offered by the DuPage Health Coalition, a partnership of local health providers that strive to make it easier for low-income families to receive high quality healthcare, Silver Access enrollees receive help paying their insurance premiums, or monthly payments.

To qualify, enrollees must be legal residents of the United States and DuPage County and purchase health insurance from the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Once approved for Silver Access, applicants will pay their premiums for one or two months. Then, the program will cover the remaining premiums, up to $150 per family member each month.  

“Silver Access puts people in a place where they can actually use their insurance,” Karen said.

They encourage enrollees to do so through education classes that teach them how to use their coverage effectively, like prioritizing preventative care and using a primary doctor rather than relying on costly emergency room visits.


Paying it forward

Because of his hand surgery and access to braces that support his wrist, Timothy is able to lift weights with his dad.

For three years, the Jenkins family has utilized the Silver Access program, and though it hasn’t resolved all their financial woes, it’s freed up some of their energy to focus on their future and opportunities to serve others.

Today, Timothy keeps himself busy running track, competing in long jump and playing soccer. He recently travelled to San Diego to participate in a development camp with the USA National Paralympic Soccer team and became the proud owner of his first therapy dog, Bailey.

Dave and Jana serve as house parents for a DuPage County nonprofit that aids young mothers, while they work to build their own nonprofit to help East Africans who migrated to America navigate their new situations and life challenges.

 “When we’re not fighting for our basic survival, like healthcare, that gives us a lot of energy and resources to put into other people,” Dave said.