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Which Big National Players Are Joining Forces to Make a Local Health Impact?

February 20, 2016 | Community News and Media, Media Coverage

Originally posted on Inside Philanthropy

by Tracey DeFrancesco

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation kicked off a new 10-year partnership with the YMCA on January 1, 2016, as part of its efforts to foster a “Culture of Health.” The collaboration is building on existing programs and introducing new initiatives by starting with a grant of just under $12 million over the next three years. With a presence in 10,000 neighborhoods across the United States, the YMCA is well positioned to coordinate a national strategy at the local level.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a long history of working with the YMCA to promote healthy communities with actions such as creating more farmers markets, building sidewalks to encourage walking, and establishing smoke-free areas. The organizations have mapped out two areas of focus for the initial three years of the next decade.

First is a project to advance a model of community-integrated health in which the YMCA will be a link between its members and local healthcare providers, figuring out how to help people achieve healthier lifestyles. The YMCA wants to leverage its resources to make a measurable impact on weight loss and nutrition, for example, but it’s also looking to develop best practices to empower other local organizations across the country to partner with healthcare practitioners.

“One of the reasons why it’s especially important now is that we’re in such an era of transformation around our healthcare system,” project director Matt Longjohn, National Health Officer at the YMCA, told Inside Philanthropy. “We feel that it’s essential that we work on this community integration health work because it’s where our mission is driving us and where the times demands of us in terms of partnership with healthcare.”

The second program funded by RWJF is the Early Childhood Equity Improvement Project. According to project director Barbara Roth, National Director of the YMCA’s youth and family programs, at least half of kids from low-income families show up to kindergarten woefully unprepared. The RWJF grant will allow the YMCA to evaluate best practices for early childhood development and health, with the goal of developing models to help communities overcome barriers to accessing services.

“I’m very proud of this project because it is in our DNA to continue to innovate and expand what we do to truly address the needs of our communities,” Roth told Inside Philanthropy. “We’ll be looking at what all children need and what all children are getting, and ideally starting to cut down on some of the inequities that start long before some kids ever get to school.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a big proponent of healthcare access and affordability, and often invests in programs that reduce health disparities in underserved populations. In 2014, we wrote about RWJF’s grand undertaking of a strategic plan to improve public health in America. Last year, the foundation announced a $25 million grant for health research. Meanwhile, RWJF is deep into a billion dollar effort over ten years focused specifically on reducing childhood obesity.

The YMCA’s 165-year history of promoting healthy lifestyles made it a natural fit to connect on the “Culture of Health” initiative, according to Longjohn. So while Y.M.C.A. remains on the list of songs that should be banned from wedding receptions, we’ll be keeping an eye on the YMCA and RWJF partnership to see how they can impact public health in the next few years.

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