REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award for Advancing Health Equity

REACH LARK Badge

Across the United States, some groups are often less healthy than others. Reasons for this include where people live, their access to places to be physically active or healthy foods, how much money or education they have, and how they are treated because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

The Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program demonstrates success in addressing health gaps and promoting health equity. Program partners work with communities to carry out culturally tailored interventions. The biannual REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award honors extraordinary individuals, organizations, or community coalitions associated with the REACH program.

Award recipients advance the science and practice of improving health equity to eliminate health differences at the national, state, or local levels. Conditions addressed may include hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or obesity and associated risk behaviors of physical inactivity, poor nutrition, or smoking.

Lessie Williams

2020 Lark Award winner Lessie Williams.

Oregon Leader Receives First REACH Lark Award

Lessie Williams received the first REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award in August 2020. For 20 years, Williams worked for Highland Haven, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon. For 5 years, she was the Highland Haven executive director. She created youth violence prevention programs, expanded access to culturally-relevant mental health services, and launched culturally-tailored health education programs to promote healthy behaviors such as healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco cessation. Highland Haven partners with the Multnomah County Health Department, a REACH recipient.

Before joining the staff of Highland Haven, Williams worked for many years as a schoolteacher while volunteering at her local church. Concerned about the health of her community and lack of African American representation in health information, Williams and two others formed a church committee in 2000. The committee’s goals were to give back to the community, build credibility within the community, and empower young people and families to become healthy adults.

“I am a helper by nature. When I know I can help, I feel an obligation to make a difference,” said Williams.

Williams’ committee initially ran into obstacles gaining participation and funding. But the team kept looking for resources. They partnered with Multnomah County Health Department’s REACH program and focused on building the community one person at a time.

“It started out difficult. But building relationships made it easier. I found someone in each organization to focus on health and wellness to build a network. It’s a beautiful thing once [people] find out you care about them and you’re compassionate about your work.

—Lessie Williams on assembling a network to advance health equity.

The REACH program provided Williams’ team with technical assistance to determine their community assets and what changes they could implement. Together, they conducted surveys and planned events relevant to the needs of the community, including breastfeeding campaigns, nutrition education, and smoking cessation events. They formed relationships with other faith organizations, health coalitions for people who are African American, and local businesses to achieve common goals.

Since beginning their work, Williams has seen an increase in the number of churches or faith communities with dedicated wellness teams, an example of the grassroots work at the core of the REACH program. Additionally, Highland Haven and REACH influenced the social norms of the community by implementing nutrition guidelines and culturally appropriate health signage. Conversations about health and nutrition are now common, and the community expects healthy food and water at events. Highland Haven, with support from REACH, plays a critical role in providing access to healthy foods, while decreasing the availability of unhealthy items such as sugar-sweetened beverages.

Community leaders such as Lessie Williams are vital to the success of the REACH program. Her compassion for her community and unique ability to form relationships represent the attributes of Lark Galloway-Gilliam, who the award is named for, and contributed to the success of Highland Haven’s mission to reduce health disparities in African American communities of Multnomah County.

About Lark Galloway-Gilliam

This award is in honor of Lark Galloway-Gilliam—the founding executive director of Community Health Councils, Inc. The council began in 1992 to support planning, resource development, and policy education in response to the growing health crisis in the South Los Angeles area. The Council’s work extends to other under-resourced and marginalized communities throughout Los Angeles County.

Lark led the Community Health Councils, Inc. to engage communities and strengthen the connections among organizations to improve health, eliminate disparities, and achieve health equity. Under Lark’s leadership, the council became an expert in health equity in Los Angeles, across California, and in the country. Lark also served in several leadership roles, including the first president of the National REACH Coalition, the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center Advisory Board, and the Institute for People, Place and Possibility Board of Directors for Community Commons.