[EDITOR'S NOTE — Difference Makers articles share stories of the local heroes making a difference during the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This section is made possible by Eastwood Mall and named in honor of Mark Eckert, who made a difference in the Mahoning Valley.]
YOUNGSTOWN — Sarah Lowry sees the Healthy Community Partnership’s role as a force to improve health outcomes in the region, as well as to shrink documented health disparities.
“Both the cities of Youngstown and Warren have recognized racism as a public health emergency, and that's really responding to the data that has been collected,” Lowry told Mahoning Matters. “Now there is a disparity. We don't want to see that disparity … so how can we make sure that the work that we're doing is done in a way that lessens that disparity?”
“[We’re] trying to make it so that an individual — regardless of where they live, their race, their gender, their age, their ability — we want to make sure that our communities are welcoming and accessible and encouraging people to live to their fullest and healthiest potential,” the director of the Health Community Partnership noted.
The partnership is an initiative supported by the Community Foundation of The Mahoning Valley that is “a collaboration of organizations and members who share a commitment to a healthier Mahoning Valley.”
Lowry said the partnership works in collaboration with local public health departments, community development corporations, planning organizations and community leaders to aid in areas such as transportation, food access, parks and green spaces, race, gender, income and employment, housing and more.
The initiative was created by the Community Foundation of The Mahoning Valley to put a structure in place for its supporting organizations — including Western Reserve Howe Foundation, the Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation, the Swanson Charitable Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — that have health and improving health outcomes as the focus of their grant making.
Lowry, who grew up in Hubbard, spent almost six years working for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown as a Northeast Ohio regional representative after graduating from Youngstown State University before taking the partnership role in 2018.
“[While working for Sen. Brown] there was a real interest in figuring out how to connect resources and offer support and be a voice and a representative for the region that I covered. But, especially, I had an obvious soft spot in my heart for my hometown here in the Mahoning Valley,” she said.
Lowry’s background put her in a unique position, having both an insider's perspective as a Mahoning Valley native and also an outsider's eye examining other Ohio counties while working for Brown. She said the transition to the Healthy Community Partnership was an opportunity to come home and to focus on doing work to improve the Mahoning Valley.
Lowry said she aims for the partnership to make communities healthier by thinking about health “outside of the four walls of a hospital,” but also in a broader everyday sense, like equal access to community resources.
“What spoke to me when I saw this position, that it is an innovative way of thinking about and talking about health and bringing people together from various ... backgrounds, sectors, to make these kinds of improvements in a way that focuses on root causes for things that get in the way of people being able to be healthy,” she said. “And that does so in a way that recognizes the strength of the many — ‘What can we do better together that we can't do separately?’”
This year Healthy Community Partnership had to add the COVID-19 pandemic to the list of focus areas. Lowry has witnessed the silver lining in watching how various partners quickly came together to develop new strategies and how the pandemic has solidified the work the partnership advocates for, such as food resources and more maintained outdoor areas.
“What came through very clearly in those early days [of the COVID-19 pandemic] is that the relationships and the network that we built through the Healthy Community Partnership was seen as a significant value. And that even though everyone was in some state of chaos or paralysis, there was strength and continuing to be together,” she said.