Heart disease and stroke are the number one and number three cause of death among African Americans, respectively. Preventative measures can greatly reduce the risk, but unfortunately medical education often is not available to many in the affected group. To fill the knowledge gap, the “With Every Heartbeat is Life” (WEHIL) curriculum was formed, which is a community-based program designed to create awareness and help prevent heart disease, diabetes, strokes, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking. The program is comprised of workshops created specifically for the lives and diets of African American communities by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health at the U.S. Department of Human Services.
As the main social service provider in Altgeld Gardens, Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) largest housing site, UCAN provides case management, clinical counseling, and employment services to residents. The WEHIL program was integrated into the Altgeld Gardens site three years ago when UCAN Vice President of Housing Support and Workforce Development Renita White was invited by the CHA to watch a WEHIL demonstration in Washington, D.C. She recognized the importance of WEHIL, and upon returning to Illinois carved a space in her budget to start the curriculum in Altgeld Gardens. “People who are living in the public housing associations are not well.” White explained, “They don’t have the proper information about health and nutrition. They are not living; they are just surviving.”
The curriculum focuses on healthy eating choices and general education on factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Fitness and smoking are also covered in the workshops that are held in the community with each session lasting six weeks. In 2013 there were 84 participants who completed the program, including youth participants, who were added this past summer.
With Every Heartbeat is Life has been a great success in the Altgeld site. “We have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction. People tell me how we have changed their lives, how they just didn’t know that the routine of their eating habits were hurting them,” White said. “We’ve even had a couple people stop smoking.”
WEHIL is providing a crucial service to Altgeld Gardens residents, and in the future UCAN hopes to expand the program to other CHA sites. With the preventative tools at hand, the community can work to become healthier. The goal is that with a greater level of overall health more of the community will be well enough to improve their lives and create a tradition of healthy living for their families.