Healthy Haven: Project Healthy Community improves the lives of NW Detroit residents

Healthy Haven: Project Healthy Community improves the lives of NW Detroit residents

Winifred “Winnie” R. Williams, 70, cares for her 95-year-old mother every day.

As an only child, she’s very protective of her mom, and access to fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein is a must in their household.

The retired Chrysler supervisor is also giving back by volunteering at Project Healthy Community (PHC), which operates a mobile pantry inside Detroit’s Northwest Activities Center every fourth Thursday of the month.

Sure, it helps feed her mother, but Williams has a giving spirit. Indeed, she uses her supervisory skills to help keep the mobile pantry lines moving. They mostly serve seniors in the community and young people with large families.

“I just care about people in general,” she says. “It’s my nature to help people.”

The pantry provides food monthly to 350-450 families who live in Detroit. Each season the pantry is open it distributes about 22,000 pounds of food from Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest. News of PHC has been word-of-mouth, Williams says. Typically, families can walk away with canned goods, a lean protein, pasta, onions, carrots, and watermelon in the summertime.

“Everything is really good,” Williams says. “It’s a help-out and truly a blessing.”

Williams has high blood pressure and is diabetic. Her mother is immobile, so whatever healthy groceries they can get are helpful. She started volunteering with PHC because of her mom, but now Williams uses her management skills for a greater cause.

“I like doing it because I’m not one to sit down and do nothing,” Williams says. “And that’s one of the things I do. I’m in that giving field all the time.”

Dr. Melvyn and Karen Rubenfire (back) are passionate about making a difference in the lives of the residents PHC serves.

Helping people in the community like Williams and her mother is a main objective for Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire, co-founder of PHC. He fondly remembers a time when the Jewish and African American communities were closer. A cardiologist with the University of Michigan Hospital, he says the connection is being reestablished.

While part of the goal was to – at least from a certain point of view – step inside a time machine and bring back those “better days,” PHC is dedicated to improving education, nutrition, and overall health of families in need in greater Metropolitan Detroit.

Schulze Academy students participate in PHC-supported afterschool and summer programs that promote nutrition, healthy activities and academics.

“It’s always been clear to anyone in this field (particularly living in the inner cities), without access to fresh food and adequate protein, the incidence of hypertension, strokes, was horribly high,” Rubenfire says.

Rubenfire has taken his cardiologist skill set as a complement to his work with PHC, where families are educated about cardiac risk factors, medications, and other issues.

With support from the Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church (Detroit) and Northwest Activities Center (NWAC), Rubenfire and his team have seen some dramatic shifts, including acceptance of the program.

Fun is a part of the focus of Project Healthy Community, which helps participants adopt healthier lifestyles.

It’s not enough to feed the hungry, says Rubenfire. That’s why nutrition education has become a regular part of PHC’s support and programming.

“The initial challenge was to get confidence in the programs by the people who needed our support,” Rubenfire says. “After the first couple of months they began to appreciate what we were doing. They eventually embraced the education – that was one of the biggest challenges, but also one of the biggest rewards.”

Rubenfire says it was important for the black community and faith-based organizations to work together, so there would be camaraderie and interfaith relations to help the community in areas of nutrition. The NWAC, formerly the Jewish Community Center, seemed the perfect place to start, but PHC is actually expanding that reach.

Thanks to a $50,000 commitment from the City of Detroit, alongside private donors, PHC with support from the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation and Greening of Detroit, plans to revitalize a park in northwest Detroit (at Lesure and Curtis). The purpose – besides beautification – is to provide safe, modern facilities for children, families, and seniors.

“We’re going to have new plantings,” Rubenfire says. “We’re going to make it comfortable for seniors as well as kids. Seeing butterflies is unusual in that area.”

Additionally, the idea is to create an environment for relaxation and athletics. Location is a paramount concern because they want parks adjacent to schools and churches in order to provide a community center for food and clothing distribution, including a summer picnic area.

“My wife and I both felt that we should do something for (Northwest Detroit),” Rubenfire says. “The education of food and food preparation was a critical part of this. The opportunity to discuss better food preparation, salt restriction…all those things made an impact on the people we’ve been able to serve.”

Amina Iqbal, Executive Director, Project Healthy Community

Organizational growth has been another component of PHC’s recent efforts. Amina Iqbal, former director of operations for the Michigan Muslim Community Council, was recently named the first executive director to the board of PHC.

“Project Healthy Community has grown substantially since its beginning in 2012,” Rubenfire says. “We are delighted to have been able to recruit Ms. Iqbal who adds much to our diversity. She has many contacts with business, media, government relations, and other non-profits with whom we can partner to improve the efficiencies of our missions.”

An experienced fundraiser, teacher and mentor, Iqbal has a bachelors degree from the University of Wyoming and a masters in education policy studies and global studies in education from the University of Illinois. Her duties with PHC include working with the board to develop business plans, foster government and community relationships, supervising employees, and fundraising.

Rubenfire’s daughter, Karen Rubenfire, is director of programming and community outreach for PHC.

The focus, as she sees it, is to provide healthier opportunities for Detroit families who don’t have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. To this end they have – with the help of Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest – provided supplemental foods and healthier choices. An informal lecture from chefs, dieticians and others, educates the participants about nutrition values and how to grow their own food.

“That in itself sets us apart,” Karen says. “We coach our volunteers to make suggestions about how to prepare it in a healthier way.”

And it’s all done with plenty of audience participation.

“Question (and) answer is totally what the focus is,” Karen says. “Rather, our educator, our expert, is providing important information that they can take home. It’s very interactive in that regard.”


Photos: Paul Engstrom






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