The Bold Step Forward: MHM’s journey to advance health equity at Aspen Ideas: Health

Embarking on a new journey is a conscious decision to embrace change, new possibilities, and transformation. However, journeys are seldom easy, and the path ahead is often brimming with unexpected barriers. Novel pursuits require years of lessons and growth but also commitment, courage, and conviction. Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc. is embracing its current journey with a sharpened focus, greater intention, and broader mindset. To fully live out its mission in “Serving Humanity to Honor God,” Methodist Healthcare Ministries is forging a path to advance health equity and improve the wellness of the least served. Methodist Healthcare Ministries defines health equity as a framework of thought and action that strives to reduce racial and socio-economic disparities so that everyone can reach their full potential for health and life. In June, Methodist Healthcare Ministries shared its journey on a global stage.

Broadening ideas and minds

A delegation from Methodist Healthcare Ministries, St. David’s Foundation, and the Knapp Community Care Foundation travelled to Colorado for Aspen Ideas: Health. For over a decade, the event has been an international draw for various sectors of government, public health, and philanthropy. Over a thousand attendees engage in one-on-one interviews, panel discussions, live podcasts, and a plethora of other opportunities. The majestic mountains and green pastures set the scene for the one-of-a-kind experience which brings visionary minds and bold leaders together in one place.  Notable speakers this year included Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, and Mandy Cohen, Director for U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2024 program was comprised of over 60 sessions and over 150 speakers that shared innovative ideas, and solutions to challenges in modern day health, medicine, and science.  Among those speakers was President and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, Jaime Wesolowski, who has led the organization’s journey to advance health equity. “As we continue to live out our mission in ‘Serving Humanity to Honor God’ it is important we recognize opportunities to highlight our work. Aspen Ideas: Health is the perfect stage to share our story and engage with others who have been or are just beginning their health equity journey.”

The first day served as a networking opportunity for members of the South Texas delegation. Sandra Martinez, Vice-President of Strategy & Partnerships for Methodist Healthcare Ministries shared what keeps her inspired. “What brings me joy is seeing the progress we’re making on our organizational journey of learning and partnership as we advance health equity. We’re transforming from within and seeing our processes, polices, and partnership change to be more community-centered and led.”  Wesolowski met with Wendy Ellis, Director at the Institute for Racial, Ethnic and Socioeconomic Equity at George Washington University. The conversation revolved around systems thinking and systems change and the shared work in advancing social justice and health equity. 

Illuminating legacies and lessons

Reimagining Equitable Systems for Thriving People and Places was a session on the second day. Conversation focused upon strategies that challenge traditional healthcare views and ways to build lasting community-led solutions. Wesolowski was joined by Kate Bollbach, Executive Director of Partners in Health United States, and Dave Chokshi, Chair of Common Health Coalition. Somava Saha, President and CEO of Well-Being and Equity in the World, led the conversation. Wesolowski opened with a retrospect of Methodist Healthcare Ministries first 25 years of creating access to care for the uninsured. Although there had been great strides, there were deep rooted challenges that needed to be addressed. “Health outcomes were not getting better they were getting worse, and they were getting worse for the populations we serve at a greater pace. Even though the work we are doing is important, we realize we have to do something else.” This new mindset led the organization to pivot and focus upon factors that impact the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH); outlined in Methodist Healthcare Ministries 20/20 Vision: Advancing Health Equity: The Strategic Plan & Framework. Wesolowski pointed to the three strategic focus areas that have served as Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ roadmap; transform internal processes and culture; strengthen communities; and impact systemic change. In transforming internal processes, Methodist Healthcare Ministries made investments at all levels of the organization, including the creation of the Organizational Excellence department; dedicated to implementing organizational systems and developing practices that align with Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ commitment to health equity. In an effort to strengthen communities, Methodist Healthcare Ministries is supporting the region it serves through community-led coalitions that are engaged to address concerns and empowered to create their solutions. Intentional investment into crosscutting areas, such as economic mobility, digital equity, and food security continues to grow and helps the organization to impact systemic change. By focusing attention into these areas, Methodist Healthcare Ministries began to broaden its definition of health care. Wesolowski said the strategic focus areas have guided the organization’s efforts in its journey to advance health equity. “We will continue to provide direct care, and we will do it very well, and at the same time we will prioritize community by community; what biggest gaps they have and address them with the same effectiveness.” Ballbach and Chokshi shared their respective expertise with the audience as best practices were exchanged, and ideas illuminated

Courtesy: C2 Photography

Is it Really Radical? The Right Risks for Systemic Change was a roundtable discussion hosted by Methodist Healthcare Ministries, which was held on day three. Over 20 national and global leaders spoke of innovative risks that are necessary in their work to advance health equity. The objective was to enlighten guests on how industry leaders can support a resilient framework of thought and action. Wesolowski spoke of the importance of investment in communities. “Follow the money in health to find opportunities to change structural well-being challenges. When you follow the money, most people will think of hospital or doctor profit margins. But those are typically below 5%. If you follow further, you will find far higher margins for pharmaceutical companies. Wouldn’t it be radical to reimagine how to redistribute some of that wealth to invest in community-led solutions based on the Social Determinants of Health?” Rishi Manchanda, MD, MPH is the founder of and President of HealthBeings. The organization supports the improvement of the social drivers of health and equity at all levels. Manchanda spoke of his experience, “Part of continuous learning; is unlearning. As our organizations seek to grow, we must take the radical risk of intentionally identifying what we need to unlearn when it comes to the narrative, economic and societal structures that unconsciously shape our work.”  

Moving the mission forward 

Courtesy: C2 Photography

Embarking on uncharted territory requires risk, and the thought of the unknown can lead to trepidation before a journey even begins; yet journeys are an inevitable part of learning and growth. Methodist Healthcare Ministries recognizes that its journey is still unfolding, and the path to living out its mission is perpetual. Although systemic inequities have not been eradicated in communities, Methodist Healthcare Ministries remains steadfast in its commitment. Conversations and collaborations lead to new thoughts and action, which is why gatherings like Aspen Ideas: Health are crucial in moving the organization forward. By deconstructing archaic mindsets, refining its strengths, and adopting new strategies bold steps are being taken to advance health equity. Through its commitment, courage, and conviction Methodist Healthcare Ministries is embracing the next part of its journey. 

Between County Roads – A Reflection on the Health Hardships and Resilient People of South Texas Colonias

 The Rio Grande Valley is a vibrant hub of US-Mexico hospitality. The distinct foods, rich bi-national culture, and remarkable people create an inviting atmosphere where residents and travelers alike feel at home. Towering palm trees span the terrain between Raymondville to Rio Grande City; painting a picture-perfect view across the four counties that comprise the region. However, behind its tropical setting and charming communities, there is a different picture of the Rio Grande Valley some may not always see.

Resilient People, Structural Inequity

Isolated from nearby towns are rural subdivisions referred to as ‘colonias;’ found throughout unincorporated areas along the Texas-Mexico border. Colonias are home to families with mixed immigration status; children may have a United States citizenship, but their parents may not. While their homes vary in size and appearance, families who live in colonias experience similar challenges. A history of insufficient infrastructure and investment have created barriers that impact health and well-being across a variety of conditions. Deteriorating roads make transportation difficult and sometimes impossible. There is a perpetual concern over life-threatening flooding due to a lack of proper drainage systems. As night falls, most colonias are left in the dark with no streetlights to illuminate the area. The lack of adequate living conditions, medical insurance, and nearby healthcare facilities have contributed to further disparities and years of health inequities. Over the years, the number of colonias has grown, especially near border communities like the Rio Grande Valley. As these problems persist, national organizations like Grantmakers in Health are focusing their attention on the resilient people living there.

Informing National Philanthropy

For more than 40 years, the nonprofit organization has been an arm of support to health funders across the country; including Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. This partnership of philanthropy creates access to a plethora of educational resources; including a network of organizations that fund programs improving the health of all people. The Board of Directors for Grantmakers In Health (GIH), travels to different regions across the country annually to gain insight on key issues affecting communities and cultures; they also meet with different organizations and learn about available tools, resources, and share best practices. Oanh Maroney-Omitade—Vice-President for Organizational Excellence at Methodist Healthcare Ministries and GIH board member explained, “for this year’s retreat the GIH Board was interested in seeing and learning first-hand more about the unique healthcare situations and solutions along the US-Mexico Border as it has been a prime topic in news and politics”. This prompted the most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley which included visits to colonias. 

A Captivating Culture

Some of Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ executive team joined GIH board members on their trip, which began with a stop at the Museum of South Texas History, in Edinburg. Dotted with designs of Spanish-tile and wrought-iron sculptures from local artists; the museum offers a curated picture into the past, with exhibitions and historical artifacts showcased across its campus. Francisco Guajardo, Ph.D. is the museum’s Chief Executive Officer; he welcomed the group and enlightened them with rich stories and facts emblematic of South Texas history and culture. Along with fellow partners, the Knapp Community Care Foundation and the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation; Methodist Healthcare Ministries invited local funded partners to meet with GIH board members. The museum’s hospitality extended into the early evening as thoughts and strategies were exchanged amongst groups. Jennifer Knoulton, Vice President for Community Health & Wellness for Methodist Healthcare Ministries said about the gathering, “We need to challenge, strengthen, and learn from one another – fostering that level of relationship takes time and intention”.

Pillars of Advocacy

As the trip rippled into the next morning, the visiting representatives traveled to the town of San Juan to meet with staff members from La Unión del Pueblo Entero, otherwise known as LUPE. Murals are seen throughout the property, illustrating a journey from oppression to liberation. The organization’s roots were planted by labor rights activist, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989 with a shared vision of people working together to impact change. Since then, LUPE has grown in their mission to assist working-class and immigrant families; especially those who reside in colonias. LUPE’s Executive Director, Tania A. Chavez Camacho explained how the organization assists people through social services and English classes and extends to fighting deportation and pushing for adequate streetlights and drainage systems in colonias, but the problems remain; something the GIH group was able to witness firsthand.

Off the Paved Path

LUPE staff invited them to tour nearby colonias; the path took them off major highways and onto rural roads not often travelled. In the small town of Donna, make-shift signs point to a way of life for colonia residents. There are no nearby grocery chains or restaurants in sight; instead, a local business simply called ‘The Little Store,’ was bustling with customers getting their breakfast tacos and items for the day. As the group arrived, they were welcomed with warm smiles and curious onlookers outside the Little Store. As the crowd convened around a set of picnic tables, the staff from LUPE introduced a group of women who live within the colonia. They spoke in Spanish and opened up about their day-to-day lives and the hardships they have endured due to the poor conditions outside their doors. One woman pointed to the countless stray dogs roaming the streets and expressed concern over the growing population. Another woman shared her frustration over the lack of nearby parks or playgrounds, and the limitations it creates for children eager to play. Cracks and craters can be found around every corner of the gravel; it is a regular problem for the colonia, but residents are worried it has become a barrier for emergency vehicles. Through local testimonies the GIH group gained a deeper understanding not only of the obstacles colonia residents experience, but of their welcoming and resilient spirits. 

A Collective Hope

The next colonia was just outside the city of Alamo. A muddied road laid out the path to the next destination; a home that sat at the curb of the colonia. The gate to the chain-linked fence was open and a group of colonia residents and LUPE staff welcomed the visitors onto the property. They gathered under a small canopy and were introduced to the homeowner along with her son. She spoke of the obstacles experienced within her community; something the group had become more familiar with during their trip. Despite the living conditions, she maintained a sense of pride in her home. As any good host would, she prepared refreshments for her guests in anticipation of their arrival. The group was also introduced to a young woman and learned of her plans to pursue a college degree, and her mother, whose overwhelming joy brought her to tears. The camaraderie of the colonia was evident as they shared in each other’s hardships, happiness, and dreams for a better future. “What stands out to me is that colonia residents are not in a situation where they need or want someone to ‘save them’. There is pride of place, of homeownership, and these tax-paying community members want spaces where their voices are heard and acted on. The generosity is astounding, and focusing on their unique strengths and assets is essential in addressing the structural barriers within colonias”, said Knoulton.

A New Outlook

Following the tour, the GIH group departed to their respective areas of the country, carrying newfound knowledge and shared experiences. The insights they gained helped to shed light on different perspectives, from people living within colonias. The investment into learning about the Rio Grande Valley will serve GIH in their mission, and benefit communities faced with similar challenges. Methodist Healthcare Ministries is thankful for its valuable partners and their work toward healthier communities. The bonds created during the GIH tour will continue to strengthen as the path toward health equity is paved forward.

The Rio Grande Valley is booming in business and commerce, with no signs of slowing down. For colonia residents, they are a critical part of that economic and communal fabric of hospitality and culture that makes the RGV so unique. Yet, more work lies ahead for health care funders like GIH and community advocates to address the systemic inequities that persist. Each day, colonia residents are met with a unique set of adversities because of where they live and the scarcity of resources. The focus and support from philanthropic organizations is crucial to these communities striving for change. However, colonia residents continue to navigate through the barriers and bridge opportunities that allow them to amplify their voices. Now, it’s time for the listening to turn into deepened layers of support that allow colonia residents to flourish and thrive.

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Jaime Wesoloski

President & Chief Executive Officer

Jaime Wesolowski is the President and Chief Executive Officer at Methodist Healthcare Ministries. A healthcare executive with three decades of leadership experience, Jaime is responsible for the overall governance and direction of Methodist Healthcare Ministries. Jaime earned his Master’s Degree in Healthcare Administration from Xavier University, and his Bachelor’s of Science from Indiana University in Healthcare Administration. As a cancer survivor, Jaime is a staunch supporter of the American Cancer Society. He serves as Chair of the American Cancer Society’s South Texas Area board of directors and he was appointed as Chair to the recently created South Region Advisory Cabinet, covering eight states from Arizona through Alabama. Jaime believes his personal experience as a cancer survivor has given him more defined insight and compassion to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families.