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Neighborhood center Director Laron Taylor (middle) and colleagues celebrate the five-year anniversary of Chicago's Pullman location. 

Celebrating 5 Years of Community Health and Wellness

Five years ago Nell Walker started dropping by Health Care Service Corporation’s new neighborhood center in Chicago’s Pullman community to play bingo and participate in free activities. After the first of three strokes, she says, the center’s Zumba, yoga and line dancing programs became key to her recovery.

“I couldn’t do all of the exercises at first, but the neighborhood center helped me take my time and didn’t mind me sitting on the sidelines,” she says. “They showed me low-impact exercises and helped build my strength to get me back to my usual activities — now you wouldn’t know that I’ve had strokes.” 

HCSC is celebrating the five-year anniversary of supporting health and wellness in communities with the neighborhood center program, which started in Pullman in April 2019, expanded to Chicago’s Morgan Park and South Lawndale neighborhoods in 2020, and an Albuquerque location is scheduled to open this summer.

Community members and HCSC employees celebrated the milestone with an event at the Pullman location.

“I’m extremely proud of the health center’s success and how it’s grown over these five years, but I’m most impressed by the community response,” says Director Laron Taylor. “We can place a center in any Chicago neighborhood but if community members don’t participate and engage it doesn’t mean much.”

Nell Walker (middle) at the Pullman neighborhood center celebrating the five-year anniversary of its opening.

Community first

HCSC’s Illinois health plan chose Pullman as the first neighborhood center site because data revealed it ranked near the bottom among Chicago neighborhoods on social and economic factors that influence health — such as education, housing and unemployment. Outreach teams worked with local religious institutions, community organizations, chambers of commerce and residents to hold listening sessions and tailor programming to community needs.

“They wanted safe, welcoming spaces to participate in programs such as job readiness and financial literacy seminars,” Taylor says. “Community members were seeking spaces where they could enhance health literacy and improve their overall health.”

Today, neighborhood centers offer no-cost fitness and line dancing classes, housing and employment seminars, and programs to improve physical, mental and social wellbeing, among many other offerings. They also function as wellness hubs for everyone in the community, not just HCSC health plan members. 

For Michael Martin, the neighborhood center started as a place for his mother to participate in occasional activities but quickly turned into weekly visits.

“My favorite part of visiting these centers is the staff,” he says. “I’m here pretty much Monday through Friday and it’s like visiting with family. You’re greeted warmly, you’re welcome and I always look forward to visiting.”

Men and women in coats and hard hats turn over dirt with shovels at a ceremonial groundbreaking.

HCSC leaders break ground on the Pullman neighborhood center in 2019.

The neighborhood centers have recorded more than 73,000 visits and hosted more than 5,500 events.

“The neighborhood centers are very important to us because we are at the heart of where health and wellness changes happen,” says HCSC Executive Director Corporate and Civic Partnerships Clarita Santos. “We are your long-term ally supporting your health now and in the future.”

That trust helped neighborhood centers launch a three-year colorectal cancer screening initiative in October 2022. To date, they’ve distributed more than 2,000 free Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) kits, and nearly 500 have been completed.

Neighborhood centers partner with more than 100 local organizations such as Dion’s Chicago Dream and T. Castro Produce, which recently teamed up to install a food locker at the Morgan Park location that provides residents easy access to fresh food.

More than 20,000 food boxes or bags have been handed out at farmers markets and other neighborhood center events since the program launched in 2021.

Two women fill baskets with fresh produce.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were provided at a block party hosted at the South Lawndale neighborhood center. 

Last year, neighborhood centers partnered with NASCAR to host health and wellness events leading up to the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race Weekend and constructed a pop-up site at the street race.

HCSC employees handed out bags of sunscreen and ear plugs, and race fans played games and received health and wellness education from employees. The pop-up also served as a shelter for groups of people seeking relief from stifling heat and downpours throughout the weekend.

HCSC’s neighborhood centers are planning to have a presence during this summer’s NASCAR Chicago Street Race Weekend taking place July 6 and 7. HCSC’s Illinois health plan is a founding partner of the street race.

A trusted partner

As the neighborhood centers continue to expand and evolve, maintaining an open dialogue with local communities remains central to its success, says Taylor.

“We are now a trusted community staple and hub,” he says. “It took time and work to develop. Not just investment but building relationships. We still lean on our communities to provide feedback and let us know what we need to do to improve. We never take that constant communication for granted.”

Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.