Looking upstream: seeking community well-being through prevention

To whom it concerns:

Several months ago, a friend of mine was tubing on the Guadalupe River when she heard the wails of a small child in a nearby tube. Puzzled that there weren’t any other adults around, my friend drew closer and realized to her horror that the child had several bruises on her chest and face. The girl was crying so hard that she could barely speak. After a few minutes, my friend discovered that the child was all alone and couldn’t remember how she ended up on the river.

Calling to a few people on the shore, my friend directed someone to call 911. Another person wrapped the girl in a towel, and someone had just given her part of a sandwich when an emaciated man with a panic-stricken expression suddenly appeared, trying to keep his head above the water. Immediately, my friend dove back into the river and pulled him to shore.

Noticing the situation, several more people came over to help. Like the child, the man couldn’t remember how he came to be in the river. He was deeply grateful for their help. Shivering and barely able to walk, he needed immediate medical attention.

As a few of the bystanders posted pictures to social media, my friend heard yet another cry for help, and she turned back to the river to see a young woman coughing loudly and gasping for breath. People in crisis seemed to be materializing one after another! As she helped with yet another rescue, my friend began to organize the volunteers around her. She formed a rescue line to pull people out of the water and organized a separate team to provide first aid, snacks, and dry towels.

In the hours that followed, many more volunteers arrived to help, and my friend called me to ask that I set up an online account to receive donations. Over the next few weeks, we constructed a makeshift tent city and successfully sought 501(c)(3) nonprofit status so that we could more adequately respond to the needs of the river survivors. To this day, we’ve grown to 150 staff members who faithfully continue to rescue and assist anyone in distress. Our records indicate that we have saved over 11,340 lives, thanks to more than 150,000 hours of volunteer time and over 430 tons of material donations.

In my now full-time role as Director of Development, I write to ask for your financial partnership as we continue to fulfill our mission. We can’t do it without you!

                  Director of Development

This isn’t my story. This is a variation on an allegory known as “Babies in the River.” Typically, it is used to launch a discussion about the difference between charity and social justice through questions such as:

  • What did the onlookers fail to do? (They failed to look upstream!)
  • How do you think the volunteers felt about their work?
  • How does this story illuminate or challenge our assumptions about the work we do?

I don’t retell this allegory to belittle charity work. Responding to immediate, basic needs is both noble and biblical, and it is certainly part of Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ mission. Instead, my goal is to remind us that charity can be endless if we don’t also address the root causes that create suffering. Why are we seeing so many people downstream?

Increasingly, the health care industry is concerned with population health. In other words, the overall goal for health care is expanding from: A) a focus on health outcomes for individuals or a panel of individuals served by a common health care provider, to also include B) a focus on health outcomes for the entire population, for whole communities.

To successfully accomplish our mission, we must not only provide the highest quality clinical care to the individuals we serve – we must also look upstream to understand and address the various factors that lead to disease and poor health. What are the root causes of our patients’ ill health? What are the root causes of our communities’ ill health? How can we address those root causes, even when they precede and loom much larger than any clinical care we can provide?

I believe wholeheartedly in policy work. Parallel to our policy efforts, we must also work upstream, partnering with others to prevent disease before it becomes more complicated and costly. Thankfully, Methodist Healthcare Ministries already channels some of its resources in this direction, from fitness and parenting programs to some of our community grants, to local community health efforts involving our Wesley Nurses. How else can we look upstream? How can we bolster and deepen our current efforts? More than anything, how can we become more holistic and intentional in seeking community well-being through prevention?

Perhaps the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah can help us examine and redefine our work. Faithfully following God means that we loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke. More than that, it means that we break those yokes and participate in liberation for all! Then our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly … God will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places, and make our bones strong. And we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

May it be so.

Tim Barr is the Collective Impact Strategy Manager for Methodist Healthcare Ministries. He supports, develops, and facilitates collaborative efforts in the Coastal Bend region.