Tavonia Ekwegh, DNP, APRN, PHN and CEO of the I-Help Foundation, uses her nursing skills to help struggling communities gain health and wellness equity through access, education, and even the ability to grow their own fruits and vegetables in some urban food deserts.
“I-Help Foundation started with a vision my husband [Timothy Ekwegh] and I had for helping people, hence the name I-Help Foundation,” says Ekwegh. “We started with a focus on the transient population and providing them with homemade meals and hygiene packets every single weekend for three years.” After taking a break to concentrate on her educational pursuits, Ekwegh and her husband found the drive to help people offered a fulfillment they needed.
Ekwegh recently shared some insights about health inequities, starting initiatives, and I-Help’s role in making a difference.
What makes I-Help distinct?
I-Help is distinct in the sense that we are comprised of a team of upstreamists who truly believe that health can be improved by addressing the root causes of social determinants of health. I-Help Foundation works closely with stakeholders on a variety of social injustices and health inequities. Our approach is more at the community level while maintaining our relationship with the local and national health sectors. By working closely with community stakeholders, I-Help Foundation has been provided with insight into health disparities and possible root causes. This insight has led I-Help Foundation to where it is today, with a new mission and vision that focuses on remedying health inequities by taking action on the social determinants of health.
I-Help seems to adapt to the changing health needs of communities. Why is adapting to those changes is so essential to the health of community members?
I-Help Foundation works within communities to both identify and advance solutions that assist in removing stigmas and barriers, and to promote the overall health of the economically and socially disenfranchised. We pride ourselves in building a foundation of knowledge by way of research so that we can better prioritize to the changing needs of the community. On-going community health assessments have proved that the needs and the environment of communities are ever-changing and social determinants can either assist or prove to be a barrier to an entire community trying to make healthier decisions.
Are some communities at a health disadvantage? How does I-Help work with community partners to change the outcome or implement programs or activities that will begin the process of improvement?
I-Help Foundation believes that some communities are at a health disadvantage for copious reasons such as social, economic, political, and logistical reasons. I-Help Foundation is committed to addressing the root causes of health disparities by working in collaboration with communities. We empower the community stakeholders such as young people and adults to advocate for their health and identify needed changes in their neighborhoods. Then we help develop and support the community’s vision of health by cultivating partnerships to deliver unique and customized programs and services that are empathetic and inclusive.
Can you please give an example of an I-Help success story of which you are most proud?
I-Help Foundation is most proud of our Farm up 4 Health, which is an urban farming program geared toward teaching young people in economically disenfranchised communities how to farm and cultivate sustainable organic non-GMO fruits and vegetables. We do this by providing them an opportunity to gain a practical farming experience by working on an urban farm every weekend. We accomplish this by providing them with the necessary equipment, seeds to grow, and harvest crops year after year.
I-Help Foundation Farm up 4 Health provides communities access to organic and healthy fruits and vegetables in otherwise inaccessible neighborhoods. In certain communities where food deserts are prevalent, these community gardens provide a nutritional avenue for families. Communities learn how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which are new to their palate, while mentors provide information about healthy eating.
What made you decide on nursing as a career choice?
I was introduced to nursing at a very tender age by way of my mother who is a registered nurse. I watched my mother’s career trajectory from nursing assistant to becoming a registered nurse later on in life. Some of my most profound memories of nursing came from going to work with my mom when she worked at a nursing home and a physician’s office. I can recall interacting and forming relationships and bonds with many of her patients. I remember one elderly patient that I fell in love with at the nursing home; she was probably in her late 80s or 90s, she had no family and my presence brought her so much joy. Although I was not allowed in the patient’s room, I would sneak and visit her, read her books and provide her companionship for the time I was there. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to meet the physiological and psychosocial needs of individuals. I believe nursing is my calling, and even in the capacity of president and CEO of a non-profit organization, I can still exemplify the tenets of nursing.
What is your personal goal as a nurse?
My personal goal as a nurse is to become a game changer for my profession and generations to follow. I would like to see I-Help continue to improve and advocate for the overall pursuit of health and wellness for our communities.
What makes health equality so important to communities on a micro level but then also as a sign of national wellness?
Health equality is a fundamental human right that is paramount to communities being able to thrive on both a micro and macro level. Without health equality, we will continue to see disproportionate levels of disease, poverty, and limited access to healthcare and public services. The health and wealth of a nation is also contingent upon the ability and willfulness to provide equitable access to healthcare for all.