The West Side United  (WSU) community organization held its 5th Annual Virtual Community Convening on March 18 to review how it helped the community since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

The organization was founded in 2017 by a group of mostly West Side-based healthcare providers to address disparities in economic opportunities, education and access to healthcare in the communities they serve.  

The founding partners for West Side United include Rush University Medical Center, AMITA Health, Cook County Health system, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Sinai Health System, and the University of Illinois Health system. The organization works with other healthcare providers, community organizations and elected officials. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization provided grants to food pantries and local businesses, while also addressing the racial disparities in child mortality and employment. 

“While COVID-19 drastically impacted the West Side of Chicago, we didn’t take it sitting down,” said Ayesha Jaco, the West Side United’s executive director. “Our group has 20 years of combined organizing under our belt. We were in action right away to help the people in our neighborhoods.”

West Side United officials said they were able to respond to the community need created by the pandemic thanks, in part, to a number of grants and private donations, including $5 million Oprah Winfrey donated on May 21, 2020.

During a presentation shown during the March 18 virtual meeting, West Side United officials said they provided around $210,000 in grants to 12 West Side food pantries and issued $500,000 in small business grants, prioritizing West Side businesses that were in danger of closing. The grants helped 39 West Side businesses, they said. 

West Side United also worked with the Chicago Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, a city initiative that includes its partner organizations, to set up eight COVID-19 testing sites and 10 mobile testing sites, which reached around 75,000 residents. The organization also distributed 9,538 Personal Protection Equipment kits, organization officials said. 

In 2020, 74 percent of West Side United interns were women and 80 percent were either Black or Latinx. The organization’s partner hospitals made a concerted effort to use West Side companies as vendors, officials said. Between 2017 and 2020, the partner hospitals collectively spent $93 million with those West Side vendors. According to the presentation, the hospitals plan to spend at least $93 million a year going forward. 

Mindful that infant mortality, childbirth complications and postpartum depression  disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities, West Side United tried to address the issue on several fronts, officials said. 

On Jan. 8, 2020, the organization launched an East Garfield Park version of the national Best Babies Zone, an initiative that “targets small geographic areas with strong community organizations to help address racial and social inequities in birth outcomes,” according to Health News Illinois. The East Garfield Park zone was the first of its kind in the city. 

The presentation also touted Family Connects Chicago, a city partnership with several hospitals, including Rush and Mt. Sinai, in which nurses check in on mothers and their families for three weeks after a baby is born.

 According to the website, nurses offer advice on childcare, address the mothers’ mental health needs and help them schedule doctors’ appointments. West Side United officials said 425 West Side families took part in the program.

In the area of education, West Side United officials said they’ve been working on turning Herzl School of Excellence, a North Lawndale elementary school at 3711 W. Douglas Blvd, into what the presentation described as a  “cluster of care community hub” that would include “physical care, mental health care, social emotional support and job assistance.” In 2020, the organization made an initial $135,000 investment. 

Darlene Hightower, associate vice president at Rush’s Office of Community Engagement, said that, while the pandemic exacerbated already existing inequities, she’s happy that West Side United responded to many of the challenges that COVID-19 has created on the West Side. 

“We were thrilled to be able to continue our important work through challenging times because the need for impact through our partnerships was so timely,” she said. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...