The pandemic has taken a significant toll on health, exponentially so in striving communities. We sat down virtually with Jeannette Cordor, a member of RMHF’s Black- and Brown-led Grassroots Capacity Building Cohort and Executive Director of The Faces of HOPE, a non-profit organization that empowers Richmond’s youth to lead healthier lives physically, emotionally, and mentally to help reduce childhood and adult obesity. Jeannette had timely and poignant words on the intersections of physical and behavioral health, the impact the pandemic has had on the health of Richmond’s youth and the most impactful ways to support grassroots leaders to advance health equity in the community.
Jeannette, as a member of our cohort, what do you value most about the interactions you’re having so far?
What I most appreciate is the camaraderie. I appreciate knowing who else in the community may be doing work similar to or intersecting with the work my organization, The Faces of HOPE, is doing. Often, we’re doing complementary work but have very different competencies as grassroots leaders, and we can support one another in learning. Many of us have been doing this work for 20, 30, 50 years, but we still have a lot we can learn from one another.
Faces of HOPE has been working to help Richmond’s young people develop healthy habits for almost 20 years. What inspired you to do this work?
I knew for a long time that there was a need. Growing up in rural Mississippi, I saw first-hand how survival eating and lack of movement caused health-related issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease in my community. But when you’re in that environment, it is your norm. You don’t see it as a problem, because there are not many people around you that don’t deal with those problems, too. When I moved from Mississippi to Massachusetts, I began to understand that this is not the norm. Just because my grandmother or great-grandmother struggled with these health issues doesn’t mean I have to, too.
When I moved to Virginia, I started with a dream of working with a small group of young girls who were struggling with self-esteem and body image. I said, we’re going to be their support system. We’re going to give them the knowledge they need to be healthy for life. Our impact grew from there. We’ve been doing this work since 2006, and we help over 200 clients each year.
What have you learned about the impact of community and environment on the health of an individual? How does Faces of HOPE address that challenge?
When we first started out, our goal was to give young people the knowledge they needed to be healthy. But we quickly realized that if we didn’t educate the community, too, once kids reentered that community, they would inevitably go back to the habits present in that environment. So we decided to start in the homes of these kids and offer our services in their families and communities.
Once a child has been medically referred and we have identified that they are in need of services, we sit down with the entire family, and they go through an orientation together. Our team is truly dedicated and they spend a lot of time with our families. We get kids as young as 5 or 6, so it’s important that we help parents play an active role in their kids’ health. We want parents to ask, “How did my child weigh in today? Is there anything else I need to do?” We help them advocate for their kids, learn how to ask for a one-on-one with a nutritionist or dietician. We need them to understand what role they play, as the parent, in their child’s health.
To support them in this, we have built a full team of healthcare providers, exercise scientists and social workers who are coaching entire families on many levels – from nutrition to exercise to behavioral health.
How is behavioral health involved in the work you do, and why is it a key component of your programming?
What we learned pretty early on is that behavioral health is a critical part of helping people be successful in any type of health program. When we began working with Dr. Daphne Bryan, a physician at Bon Secours, she said, “You have to add the mental health piece.” I was not convinced at first. Two years later, I added the component and have not looked back. What we found is that nutrition, fitness and mental health are intertwined. You cannot help someone maintain good overall health habits and behaviors if you don’t also address their emotional and mental wellbeing.
The past 18 months have been very challenging from the perspectives of both mental and physical health, particularly for striving communities. How has Faces of HOPE had to adapt in response to the pandemic?
We were doing tele-health before the pandemic hit, so virtual health services were not foreign to us. But Zoom-fatigue is a very real thing. We were asking our children and our parents to be on, after they’d already spent hours on the computer for work and school, and it was not working. We had to pivot quickly to say, what outdoor space can we utilize? How can we safely operate in our facilities? And we had to keep current on the CDC guidelines as the situation unfolded. We ended up finding ways to bring small groups of our clients together, socially distanced. We had to get creative. We even did a drive-through weigh-in for the entire month of May so that we could keep up with our kids and families.
How has the pandemic impacted the health of the kids you serve?
Connecting with clients, you can tell how hard this pandemic has been on our community’s children. Many of our kids gained significant amounts of weight during lockdown, and we know that this is very connected to mental health. Kids have been away from their peers at school. Their routines have been interrupted. They’ve been bored. Depressed. Stuck in the house. They have missed their friends, lost family members. Food is a coping mechanism for so many of us. So we know we’ll have a lot of work to do with clients after this pandemic, to address both their mental and physical health.
What communities does Faces of HOPE serve? Talk to us about working with communities and cultures that may be different from your own.
When we started out, our clientele was predominantly African-American, but for the past few years it has been over 90% Latino. What we’ve learned is that we don’t know everything. We all come from different backgrounds, and there is nothing more important than listening.
We have kids and families coming to the United States for the first time. Entering a new environment, a new country, changes a family’s dynamics completely. Some of our clients have never had to worry about diet or exercise before, because they are coming from places where they walked everywhere and grew their own food. These are the kinds of things you can’t understand unless you sit down with the communities you are serving and truly listen.
Our team has done cultural competency training, because they truly want to understand and be sensitive, and we work to have people on staff who are bi-lingual. But the most important part of understanding the communities we serve is truly listening to their challenges and letting them tell us what they need.
To that point, what advice would you give grantmakers who are supporting work in communities that may not be their own? Why is it so critical that funders and investors support grassroots organizations led by BIPOC leaders?
Because we’re the ones on the ground doing the work. Any of us can speculate about what needs to happen, but at the end of the day, if you’re not in the community, living in it, talking to the consumers of your programs every day, you will not get it right.
What I would say to funders and grantmakers is, pull out a seat for us. Bring us to the table, and then have an open ear and an open mind to truly hear what is happening in the community. Some of these issues have been going on for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. We know what is needed, but we need consistency, time and trust in the form of multi-year funding and fewer restrictions on that funding.
We can share what it will take to get the outcome you are looking for, and we can get there together, but you have to listen and you have to have trust.
We are so grateful to Jeannette for her participation in RMHF’s Grassroots Capacity Building Cohort and for the work she is doing with Richmond’s youth and their families.
Bio – Jeannette Cordor
Jeannette Cordor is the Executive Director of The Faces of HOPE, a non-profit organization that uses a multi-disciplinary approach to prevent childhood obesity and empower youth to lead healthier lives physically, emotionally and mentally. Jeannette has worked in the healthcare space for almost 20 years, helping to bring health knowledge and habits to individuals, families and communities throughout the Richmond region. Jeannette is a member of RMHF’s Grassroots Capacity Building Cohort.