By Kadesha Thomas
Photo by Jason Smith

Marcus Wolfe can clearly remember when promoting a healthy lifestyle grew from a personal interest into a professional mission. At various Chicago community colleges he taught employment preparation courses to students from underserved communities. Between lectures on résumé writing and interviewing skills, he started to throw in warnings about the sugary drinks and potato chips his students constantly ate.

“It dawned on me that the way they lived their lives outside of work would impact their performance,” says Wolfe, who was raised in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. “I remember thinking it would not do any good to get a job if they couldn’t get to work because they are not healthy.”

A Need for Health Care

The need for chronic disease prevention on the South Side is clear: The prevalence of diabetes in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods, most of which are on the South Side, is 12 percent, compared with the city’s overall 7 percent prevalence rate. South Side communities are disproportionately affected by hypertension and a lack of health insurance. For the last five years, Wolfe has taken healthy living messages from the classroom to the broader South Side community, tapping into resources from the University of Chicago.

While a resource coordinator at Cook Elementary School in the South Side’s Auburn Gresham community, he also worked part-time in the production department at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. He developed a relationship with local medical programs to bring mobile vans for dental screenings and immunizations to the school. He also laid the groundwork to set up a teen immunization program for girls through the University of Chicago Medical Center. Wolfe also partnered with Chicago Greater Food Depository to have weekly deliveries of fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy snacks. Soon, supply for the bags of food could barely meet demand, particularly for the struggling families who had been displaced by foreclosures.

The principal then asked him to create a directory of the health-related services in the community. He was excited to find out that such a project was already underway at the University of Chicago. The South Side Health and Vitality Studies, led by Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, pulls resources from the University and the neighboring communities to map all of the non-residential entities, such as businesses, social services, and healthcare providers within the South Side’s 34 communities. Auburn Gresham happens to be in the 51st ward, the largest ward in Chicago.

A Community Liaison

After Wolfe assumed a role as a community liaison, he constantly supplied the South Side Health and Vitality Studies with information on the 51st ward and connected researchers with key community members, including Howard Brookins Jr., alderman of the 51st ward who also happens to be Wolfe’s fraternity brother. This past summer student researchers and community residents were deployed throughout Auburn Gresham to map the community's resources. Auburn Gresham became the 10th South Side community to complete the mapping project, jointly funded by the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation and the University of Chicago.

Brookins plans to use the data to boost the community’s case for bringing businesses, and therefore jobs, to the neighborhood.

“I can show potential retailers that I’m not just blowing smoke,” Brookins says. “The community has been well-researched, and its value has been well-documented.”

Wolfe agrees that the mapping project is reinforcing the assets in communities that are too often only cited for health disparities, violence, and other social ills. “For example, a lot of churches have very valuable programs—feeding programs, after-school programs, and a myriad of others—that community members didn’t even realize were on the next block,” he says.

Since joining the South Side Health and Vitality Studies, Wolfe has decided to add another component to his role as a community health liaison—a Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. “Everything I have been doing all along is social work,” Wolfe says. “I just didn’t realize it.”

Originally published on November 16, 2010.