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.