Ayesha Jaco’s personal experience as a West Side resident is what drives her work with West Side United.
Raised in East Garfield Park, the double-digit life expectancy gap between the West Side communities and the rest of Chicago, she said, is often heavily rooted in a lack of access to medical care.
“I had a grandmother expire from cancer two weeks after she was diagnosed,” Jaco said. “I often think about because she spent most of her time in the church, three times a week minimum, if she would still be here if that church had a community health worker that was coming in, encouraging screenings, checking in with seniors around doctors visits.”
West Side United addresses the inequality in healthcare, education and economic vitality through partnerships with local hospitals and other local partners. Jaco and her team work to not only improve equal access to medical care for West Side residents, but also the economic disparity by having the hospitals on the West Side look within their own community when hiring for jobs — with over 1,800 residents hired since 2017.
“We’ve been able to leverage the power of health institutions,” she said,” who initially started this work and wanted to do a better job of serving communities in their backyards by being more mindful of the opportunities for access to care.”
Now, West Side United is launching an initiative to create community hubs for care around local schools.
“This cluster of care community-based hub allows us to provide wraparound services to an elementary school that really enhances a school’s and community’s ability to provide access to care for students and communities, job opportunities for parents and just a myriad of services that make sure the whole child is considered in academic settings,” she said.
“We believe if we’re able to address some of the social drivers and arm generations with the ability to be more mindful about their health, to have more resources in a place that they come five days a week, six hours a day, that we’d be able to help mitigate and get in front of and provide prevention strategies to what we’re seeing in some of the health disparities.”
Through the community hubs, Jaco said, not only will better access and a heightened awareness of health and wellness be a focus, but the hubs will help inspire kids with an accessible career path in the healthcare field.
It’s another emphasis that she draws from her own experience on the West Side.
“When I think about career pathways, growing up in East Garfield Park I saw violence across a group of young men between the ages of 14-25 that were friends with my brother that expired. Over 25 of them died over a 10 year period,” she said. “A lot of what they were doing was around trying to secure economic means for their families. If there were programs in their high schools, if there were workforce development pieces that were more prominent, then maybe that would’ve been able to help some of them.
“The target audience as we talk about it today is for the incumbent workforce. A step before that is getting people inside the door to qualify. There’s a part of me that wants to make sure that people have access to help mitigate some of the root causes of violence that I’ve seen play out.”
By focusing on the schools and the micro-communities that they create within a few blocks, Jaco knows the impact that West Side United makes across Chicago’s West Side will be felt on a much deeper, and stronger, level.
“We believe that if we become partners with principals, schools, parents, teachers and students, that we can have a microcosm of our (West Side United) model live in this academic or education pillar,” Jaco said. “For us, it’s very important, very timely to start the work now. It really allows is to make sure we’re laying the groundwork for a very strong pilot that cannot only be replicated in this very targeted community, but across all of our West Side communities.”