Basketball superstar LeBron James continues to make offseason headlines. This time, it's for something that even 76ers fans can agree on. James' I Promise School model recognizes that a child's environment plays an important role in his or her success.
A high IQ and personal initiative don't mean students will excel in the classroom, especially if they don't have support at home, don't know where their next meal is coming from or don't feel safe in their own neighborhood. James has opened the door to a much-needed broader conversation about health equity, the opportunity to be healthy, and we need to take advantage of this spotlight. Being "healthy" means more than getting a flu shot or exercising each day.
Social conditions shouldn't determine how long or how well we live. It is challenging for kids to get daily exercise if their neighborhoods are too dangerous for them to be outside. Parents can't buy fruits and vegetables without fresh markets in their area. Who among us would choose seeing a primary-care provider if the co-pay meant we couldn't afford to feed our family? Only when people can obtain appropriate care and have the means to make healthy choices — regardless of income, education, ethnicity, or location — can we say that we are on the path to truly healthy communities.
We should be surrounded by conditions that enable us to live the healthiest lives possible, such as access to healthy food, quality schools, stable housing, good jobs with fair pay, and safe places to play. Unfortunately, in many communities, persistent barriers to health hinder opportunity to thrive.
At New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grant-making program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we work with communities across the Garden State to remove economic and social obstacles and advance health equity to build a culture of health where everyone can live a healthier life.
In Cape May County, for example, the Cape Regional Wellness Alliance breaks down silos among the social service, education, health care, public service and business sectors. The alliance's work addresses the county's high rate of adverse childhood experiences, such as witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, divorce or an incarcerated parent. Through an in-school Big Brothers Big Sisters program and summer youth camps run by local police, the community knows more about childhood trauma — and more kids have the chance to grow up in a safe and supportive environment.
Nationally, gaps in health are large, persistent and increasing. Those gaps must be closed, and community involvement is an important tool to achieve that. In New Jersey, our goal is to engage new and traditionally underrepresented voices in meaningful, broad conversations that result in action. We are partnering with school nurses, food banks and pantries to provide weekend backpacks to students whose families don't have enough to eat. We are also partnering with school superintendents to increase the number of school employees and community residents trained in mental health first aid. Involving residents, business owners, educators, youth, cultural institutions, and elected officials fosters a cross-sector dialogue that inspires meaningful action.
It's time to come together, to align resources, encourage dialogue and inspire action to build a healthier New Jersey for all. That should be a slam dunk.
Diane Hagerman is deputy director of programs for New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grant-making program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. NJHI supports innovations and drives conversations to build healthier communities across New Jersey.