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AHA award winner's commitment brings hope and change to declining Syracuse neighborhoods

June 14, 2013

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Building a healthier community requires the collaboration of multiple partners.

St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, NY, recognized this when it partnered with the city and numerous neighborhood groups to take on a comprehensive revitalization of its North Side, or Prospect Hill neighborhood – a community that has long been the home to immigrants and refugees.

Like many other former industrial cities, in the past 20 years the neighborhood began experiencing higher rates of crime, flight to the suburbs, and disinvestment. St. Joseph’s knew in 2008 that it was time to make a change. And, as a neighborhood icon for more than 140 years, it needed to help lead the effort.

“We were in a failing neighborhood and needed to make an investment in the community,” said Kathryn Ruscitto, president and CEO of the 431bed hospital and health center.

“We could just build a building
“Community Connections” spotlights the many ways in which hospitals serve their communities. AHA members can learn more by visiting www.ahacommunityconnections.org.

or we could do something to change the community around us. The community became very proud of what we were doing and that spurred us on to do more. We realized we could be the catalyst.”

In 2009, St. Joseph’s dedicated $220 million to a green building expansion to foster economic growth within the community by increasing the number of full-time employees and expanding the hospital’s capacity for new patients and visitors. The hospital also introduced a multipronged neighborhood revitalization strategy comprising an affordable and sustainable housing development program, a home ownership initiative and a workforce training program.

These revitalization initiatives earned St. Joseph’s the AHA Carolyn Boone Lewis Living the Vision Award. The award recognizes institutions or individuals living the AHA’s vision of a society of healthy communities where all individuals reach their highest potential for health.

Developing a Community Workforce. The seventh largest employer in the Central New York region, St. Joseph’s is a sponsor of the Northside Urban Partnership (Northside UP), which offers two workforce training programs to residents in the area: Health Train and Green Train. While Health Train identifies and prepares Northside community members for entry-level positions at St. Joseph’s and its partnering health care employers, Green Train links neighborhood residents to quality, entry-level jobs in the field of green construction, weatherization, infrastructure and landscaping.

Between them, the two workforce training programs have trained 200 people and have an 85% success rate in job placement.

“What’s been great about it is that in these positions that are typically high turnover, we’ve had zero turnover,” said Dominic Robinson, director of Northside UP. “This is clearly a value-add for St. Joe’s, too. These are people who might not have made it through the electronic application process if it weren’t for this program.”

Providing Affordable, Highquality Housing. St. Joseph’s in 2008 began working with the city and nonprofit community development agencies Home HeadQuarters and Housing Visions to transform two blocks of dilapidated and crime-ridden properties across the street from the hospital into a $14 million housing project. With support from federal, state, city and private sector initiatives, the project rehabilitated existing structures and constructed new buildings called Prospect Hill Homes. In total, the project resulted in 50 high-quality, affordable, sustainable housing units that are available for rent to working-class hospital employees and other neighborhood residents.

St. Joseph’s also offers a mortgage guarantee program for employees who purchase homes in a large area of Syracuse’s North Side. St. Joseph’s takes it a step further by providing an additional benefit for employees who may need financial assistance to buy a home.

Chol Ater, a refugee from Sudan, came to Syracuse in 2002. While Ater already worked as a patient transporter at St. Joseph’s when he joined the workforce program, after graduating, he was promoted to a medical technician position. In 2011, he bought his first home on the North Side with the help of St. Joseph’s matching program.

“You come to this country, you don’t know what to do, you find this kind of training – it’s very good,” said Ater. “I was able to purchase my house through the training, which is one of the great things about the program. A woman came and told us how to manage our money, improve our credit so we can buy a house in the future, and about the home club first buyer program, which is a match program.”

To sustain its neighborhood efforts over the long term, St. Joseph’s worked with a local economic development organization to create and facilitate programs, and forged strategic partnerships with housing organizations and grassroots community groups. “The beauty of what St. Joseph’s has done is taking a long and broad view of this work,” said Northside UP’s Robinson. “They are thinking about health on a much broader scale. They are setting this community up for a better future and one where the challenges we face – economic, crime, or health – are all taken into account.”

“It’s not where your real estate is located, it’s how you define the role of a hospital in this new environment,” added St. Joseph’s CEO Ruscitto. “We are taking the definition of hospital beyond the walls of the real estate.”

By Meg Figley