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'Navigators' in Milwaukee Seek Out Barriers to Good Health


A number of efforts are underway in Milwaukee to improve health outcomes for low-income residents.

We reported on one initiative Tuesday morning – new primary care clinics that are run exclusively by nurses. They’re addressing critical healthcare needs in areas where few doctors exist.

Another effort, also by Children’s Hospital, places “community navigators” in underserved areas.

In those neighborhoods, people have tough barriers to overcome, such as lack of food or transportation.

It’s Tunisia Sims’ job to help people overcome those problems.

“For example, I have four children and I’m out of food and I need a food pantry, but I don’t know where one is at, I can provide them with where food pantries is at and it’ll be less stress on them and overall it will help their health. Because if they don’t have any type of resources or know about them, their health will deteriorate and then all of that will be transferred to their children,” Sims says.

Sims is one of Children’s Hospital’s community navigators. For about a year, she’s been working with families in the Amani and Franklin Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side. Navigators are also stationed in Metcalfe Park.

Many who live in those areas, live in poverty. And data show children there are more likely to have low birth weight, higher infant mortality and unstable family situations – all of which can lead to poor health as adults.

Sims knows hundreds of people, non-profits, public agencies, and other resources that can help address neighbors’ problems.

“I have a binder that’s like my resource bible,” she says.

She lugs her big binder with her as she walks the neighborhoods, checking in on residents and gauging what’s holding them back from, say, making healthy meals for their kids or getting a mammogram.

“I always let the residents know that I’m here for the long run. It’s up to them if they want my services. But I’m also a person that they can call to just vent to. They might not need a resource. They just might need to just talk to someone or get some frustrations out, so I’m always here for that as well,” Sims says.

Organizers think it’s a good model because the navigators live in the communities they serve, and each one has been reaching more than 20 new families a month.

Chanta Brown, a single mom, lives with her two boys on the city’s north side. She got hooked up with navigator Tunisia Sims when she needed to find a place to live and some furniture. Sims also helped the mother access her boys’ immunization records. And, Sims encouraged Brown to take advantage of the new Children’s Hospital Primary Care clinic that’s literally across the street from their house. It serves kids and adults.

“A lot of families are scared to come to ask for help. You know a lot of them have their pride, you know it’s never embarrassing to ask for help because everyone needs the help. You could be a rich man and need some help. So no matter if you have some money or not, you know it’s just a good place to be able to come and it’s right across the street. You can ask for no more than that,” Brown says.

Nurse practitioners from Marquette University run the clinic on Burleigh and 23rd, and another new one at the Northside YMCA. Nurse practitioners can handle the majority of primary care, and can prescribe drugs.

Sims says in recent months, she’s encountered many people who’ve been evicted, and women who are struggling because their significant others are felons and have trouble getting jobs. Sims says she can help people resolve immediate issues, but the hope is that residents build new skills that will lead to good health for the long-term.

“Sometimes I feel like, am I really helping them better themselves or get beyond their circumstances? But then there’s sometimes where I’ve worked with some residents that did a complete 360 and some of the resources I’ve provided them with they were able to get some of the things that they need to help them move on,” Sims says.

The community navigator program will extend to another new neighborhood later this year. The hospital also plans to begin measuring the impact the connections are having on peoples’ health.

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