Partnership with Project CHANGE helps Natchez reduce health disparities

My Brother’s Keeper purchased the playground equipment for Concord Avenue Park in Natchez to encourage more exercise for children. PHOTO BY James Johnston

By Reggie S. Davis 

Special to The Mississippi Link

My Brother’s Keeper purchased the playground equipment for Concord Avenue Park in Natchez to encourage more exercise for children. PHOTO BY James Johnston

The city of Natchez has found an ally in its mission to improve the health and wellness of the community. In collaboration with My Brother’s Keeper: Project CHANGE Initiative, a total of four neighborhoods parks and recreation areas have been selected to be revitalized. The needed enhancements are an essential part of the city’s promotion of healthy living and active lifestyle.

According to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (2015), 80 percent of individuals in Natchez-Adams County live reasonably close to a location where children can play safely, and adults can enjoy evening walks, morning runs, or weekend bike rides.

By contrast, the same report reveals a negative increase in unhealthy habits.

From 2011 to 2015, more than a third of adults in Adams County were characterized as obese, and nearly half reported no amount of physical activity during leisure time.

James Johnston, Natchez Planning and Community Development Director, is aware that there are many residents who are suffering from a decline in their physical health in his city and does see an opportunity to bridge some health gaps.

“Natchez-Adams County is disproportionately impacted by chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, premature births, etc. The mayor and board felt that one small way to assist in improving the health and wellbeing of its residents was through physical fitness,” said Johnston. “Improvements to our neighborhood parks seemed the logical choice.”

Nevertheless, for many communities, public works and recreation are not always a municipal priority.

Johnston shared that the reality for small municipalities is “not enough resources are provided to our neighborhood parks. It has been a number of years since any significant resources were expended to improve our parks,” said Johnston. “But park enhancement and recreation is quickly becoming a priority to our elected officials.”

In March 2015, the city received more than $90,000 in grant funds from My Brother’s Keeper, Inc.’s Project CHANGE Initiative to renovate Jack Waite and North Natchez Parks. The grant provided funds for outdoor playground equipment, instructional fitness equipment, resurfacing of basketball and volleyball courts, restroom facilities, and a 20-by-20-foot raised fruit and vegetable garden bed.

My Brother’s Keeper, Inc. recently provided the city a secondary award just under $110,000.00 in November 2015.

According to Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, mayor pro tem, “These grant funds will go towards both the purchase of new fitness and playground equipment and to improvements of existing recreation amenities (at) Concord Neighborhood Park and Duncan Park “

Funds will also go toward resurfacing the eight tennis courts and purchasing new fitness and playground equipment at Duncan Park as well as refurbishing the one-half mile, walking trail.

“Our elected officials have heard the need to improve our parks and recreational opportunities and are now listening and dedicating resources for these improvements. Residents that use the parks most frequently are the most vocal,” Johnston said.

In addition to the renovations awarded by My Brother’s Keeper’s Project CHANGE Initiative, the city is completing work on the Phase II of the St. Catherine Trails, moving forward on partnering with the Jackson/Metro YMCA to build a pool at Liberty Park, and constructing a new tennis pro shop and restrooms at Duncan Park with the assistance of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Duncan Park is home to one of the state’s premiere 18-hole golf courses that are open to the public without exclusion. The ‘Historical Back Nine’ has been a celebrated attraction in the community and by tourists since 1916 for its luscious gardens, lining trails for biking, hiking, and running.

Natchez government officials celebrate the level of service MBK has invested in the community.

“It has been a very good experience,” said Johnston. “To receive funds in consecutive years … has been a blessing to the residents of Natchez-Adams County and for our elected officials.”

In the last two years, MBK has awarded more than $247,000 in health and wellness opportunity in the Natchez area including partnerships with the Natchez Children’s Home, Natchez Public School District, and the Natchez Housing Authority.

Shamir Gates, Regional Project Coordinator for Project CHANGE, reaffirms that the success of a healthy living approach lies in incorporating accessible options for physical activity for communities.

“Evidence shows that when people have access to parks, they exercise more which increases fitness and reduces obesity,” Gates explained. “In addition, parks offer a space for members of the community to gather in turn increasing residents’ social connections.”

Henry ‘Hawk’ Harris, a tennis instructor, for NL Elite Sports in Natchez emphasized the importance of underprivileged youth having access and exposure to diverse types of physical activities, highlighting the popularity of organized sports such as golf and tennis, traditionally perceived as opportunities for the rich.

“I expose tennis to kids at 3 years-old at head start,” Harris said. “And, by the time they are in third grade, they open back up and are now ready to play.”

Harris further stressed that an interest in using the parks for outdoor physical activities and exercise starts with reinforcements from familiar sources. Many of his students are the children or younger siblings who have matured, and are no longer in his tennis program.

“When big brother plays, or big cousin plays the idea to be physically active makes a lot more sense to them because they can recognize a change,” Harris said. “We practice tennis Monday through Thursday.”

The rewards are not just physical health. Harris stated that 2016 marks the 40th year anniversary of the youth athletics program. Since 1976, there have been “4,780 kids to graduate from high school” and as many to enter college.

“To stay healthy you, you need exercise,” proclaimed Harris, “If (we) let the kids exercise, there is no telling what the brain will do.”

More information on Project CHANGE and MBK, Inc. other initiatives to reduce health disparities is available at www.mbkinc.org, or on Facebook at Project CHANGE/My Brother’s Keeper Inc. 

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