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Here's how these nonprofits are trying to close health equity gaps in our region

Teen Empowerment coordinators
Racquel Stephen
James Kegler (left) and J'la Jones (right) are both program coordinators for Teen Empowerment Rochester

Last year, Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield awarded at least $30,000 each to seven local nonprofit organizations to start-up or expand new efforts towards addressing racial, health and rural disparities within the region.

“We know that our grassroots, on the ground community-based organizations work tirelessly every day to improve health outcomes, and to advance health equity,” said Gina Cuyler, Excellus BCBS Vice President of Health Equity and Community Investments. She said the Health Equity Award grant was one way to ensure that people living in disenfranchised communities get access to quality health care.

“This is a place that our members live, this is a place that we live, and we have a commitment and a duty to ensure that all people are able to have that opportunity to have a healthy life,” Cuyler added.

The award recipients underwent a robust application process and were selected by committees considering community health needs. One of the award recipients, Teen Empowerment, used the money to expand its Youth Organization program to more neighborhoods.

“There's not many safe places here in Rochester [for youth], and to have that within Teen Empowerment is very powerful,” said J’la Jones, program coordinator for the Eastside facility. She said some funding was used to expand their reach by hiring more young people and planning more locations.

Racquel Stephen
Gail Berks and Ebony Stubbs represent BIPOC PEEEEEEK

Teen Empowerment engaged roughly 900 young people with its focus on mental health and its effect on trauma and violence. James Kegler, a youth organizer, said after COVID the organization began seeing an influx of teens seeking resources.

“We were seeing the repercussions of youth staying in, being online, and not having that social interaction,” Kegler said. He said the funding has allowed the organization to reestablish its presence in the community.

An organization that works with Black, Indigenous, and people of color on mental health, BIPOC PEEEEEEK, a newer organization that works with Black, Indigenous and people of color, also received money. BIPOC PEEEEEEK used the grant money to expand their outreach and marketing to transition away from solely volunteer work.

The organization focuses on erasing the stigma related to mental health in communities of color, and to improve mental health outcomes for marginalized groups.

“We want people to talk about it more,” said Gail Berks, BIPOC’s project coordinator, “We're trying to make sure that parents feel comfortable talking about mental health, and they're not hiding."

Over the past several months, the program has reached more than 1,000 people through its hands-on engagement and education activities.

Donna Johnson.png
Racquel Stephen
Donna Johnson is the Program Coordinator for Finger Lakes Community Action, a subsidiary of Wayne County Action Program,

Reaching people in rural areas was also a focus for Excellus BCBS. Finger Lakes Community Action, a subsidiary of Wayne County Action Program, used their award money to pilot a peer support program to expand outreach to people of color with physical, mental or behavioral disabilities.

Program Coordinator Donna Johnson said it was important to have individuals with lived experiences become helpers, and the bulk of the money was used to provide them with the proper training.

“It's a very slippery slope to pretend you're a counselor when you're not, “she said. “This [funding] is giving us what we've needed to make sure that the people that are working through our agency are supported through training and oversight.”

Johnsons said her organization has since received additional funding from Excellus BCBS to help fill in the financial gaps accompanied with the training process.

Other organizations who received award grants were: Empire Justice Center; Mt. Hope Family Center; National Witness Project; and the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County, Aenon Missionary Baptist Church and Coordinated Care Services, Inc.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.