On Saturday, Healthfirst, in partnership with Assemblywoman Latrice Walker and Medgar Evers College’s Cornerstone Initiative, transformed Brownsville’s Van Dyke Community Center into a dreamy winter world.

“There are many families, particularly in this area, who are struggling this holiday season,” said Assemblymember Latrice Walker. “So I am very thankful for this event today, that gives them an opportunity to come out, for the kids to get their faces painted, get some delicious, healthy food and pick up a toy.”

More than 60 HealthFirst employees and Brownsville residents came together to make the annual Toyland a truly cheerful experience for the Brownsville community.
Photo credit: A. Leonhardt for BK Reader

More than 60 HealthFirst employees, volunteers and local residents prepped for three days to make the health care provider‘s Third Annual Toyland holiday extravaganza possible. There was catered food, holiday music tunes by a DJ, a balloon artist, face painting and – gifts! And, of course, there was an appearance by Santa himself. This year, Healthfirst welcomed close to 3,000 children and families. 

For Healthfirst Vice President of Community Relations George Hulse, good health starts with feeling happy and being well.

“Health is really about 20 percent clinical outcomes. The other 80 percent are about other factors such as being in a safe and comfortable environment, good relationships with your family and neighbors,” said Hulse. “So today’s family event, sharing a wonderful holiday, is important to make this community healthy.” 

Toyland is part of the “Healthy Village Brownsville” initiative, a concept that was brought to life four years ago. Aside from various community projects and the annual health expo, HealthFirst partners with local groups and organizations such as Medgar Evers College’s Cornerstone program, an education outreach initiative, to offer year-round free health and wellness programs to address health disparities.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker (l) and Medgar Evers Van Dyke Cornerstone Director Saundra Johnson (r). Photo credit: A. Leonhardt for BK Reader

“We are thrilled to be a staple in this community and to partner with Healthfirst,” said Saundra Johnson, director of Medgar Evers Van Dyke Cornerstone program. “Everybody is dressed up. There is good music. It’s a feel-good environment. Right now, there are a lot of families who are having a hard time. Events like today are what our community needs.”

At Van Dyke Community Center, the cornerstone program in collaboration with Healthfirst runs weekly nutrition and exercises classes, as well as workshops to promote healthy lifestyles and relationships.

“Together with Healthfirst, we offer exercise and cooking classes,” said Johnson. “Then, there are also pop-up workshops to educate particularly young people on how to develop good practices regarding healthy relationships and sexual health, as well as to address the issue of domestic violence.”

For 2019, Healthfirst wants to continue to build on health education and wellness, to create one healthy village at a time, beginning with Brownsville, Hulse said. Some of the issues the healthcare provider will focus on are women’s and maternal health, diabetes and dental health. 

“America has become a destination for illness. But we want to make communities like Brownsville well,” said Hulse. “Our big focus for 2019 is going to be on education and prevention. We are very concerned that there are so many maternal deaths among women of color. So we will put a special emphasis on education and wellness for pregnant women and new moms. We also will spend a lot more of our resources on residents who are pre-diabetic. We want to let them know that we can work with them. With exercise, diet and lifestyle, hopefully, they never have to become a diabetic.”

Catch some of Saturday’s holiday cheer and take a look at our photos from Healthfirst’s Third Annual Toyland. Photo credit: BK Reader.


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