Southeast Raleigh Promise Project aims to end intergenerational poverty
Tina Haver Currin
photographs by Travis Long
When Raleigh is mentioned as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, the towers of central downtown and midtown come to mind. So do the soon-to-boom warehouse district, developments like Brier Creek, and tracts of new suburban houses. But there’s another segment, home to approximately 89,000 residents, that hasn’t garnered the same kind of attention, even as development there promises to improve the lives of tens of thousands of residents.
Local leaders in organizations including the YMCA, Advance Community Health, and PAVE school say they’re turning an area of Southeast Raleigh into a locus for holistic community health, education, and wellness. They’re transforming a stretch of Rock Quarry Road that reaches through suburban and urban neighborhoods into a multifaceted complex including a charter school, affordable housing, a health center, and an expansive YMCA. Together these new projects are expected to touch more than 29,000 residents who live within the corridor, bringing them what they say they want and need, including affordable exercise and health care facilities, child care, and a planned fresh produce market.
“It’s exciting to do this really big, magnificent work in my own community,” says Kia Baker, a Southeast Raleigh native who’s leading the Southeast Raleigh Promise Project, an independent organization coordinating the various efforts. “We’re not looking only at this site, but at creating a cradle-to-career pipeline of support and interventions, to ensure that every child is successful,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to end intergenerational poverty.”
The center of this growth is a parcel of land near the Interstate 440 interchange on Rock Quarry Road. Advance Community Health is already up and running there; across the street stands a 32-acre chunk of land that used to house Watson’s Flea Market, and now stands empty. Soon, planners say, the site will buzz with life as the construction of a massive new YMCA facility begins. The Y, which bought the land last November, is currently in the midst of a $15 million fundraising campaign to construct the home base for a broad range of community-based services, all coordinated by the homegrown Promise Project.
The Promise Project’s Baker helms this massive effort with a calm demeanor that belies her jam-packed schedule. “I consider myself a systems thinker,” she says. “There are lots of people who have one issue they’re really passionate about. That’s not the case for me. I’m able to look at an entire system and facilitate better ways for people to gain access to resources in our community.”
The YMCA has been at work in Southeast Raleigh for years, but when the Garner Road facility lost its charter seven years ago, the organization had to seek creative partnerships to continue to serve the community. That included working with Walnut Creek Elementary School to host after-school programming, tutoring with a full-time staff, and fitness classes.
“What they realized was that people had real barriers to fitness. It wasn’t that people in this community weren’t interested in being healthy,” Baker says. “There were no gyms in Southeast Raleigh, and if there were, where would their children go while they worked out?”
When the YMCA, working out of Walnut Creek Elementary, began offering $3 fitness classes that included child care, hundreds of people took advantage of the program – so many, in fact, that the program quickly outgrew the space. Baker sees the new facility as the logical, and critical, next step.
Band Together agrees. When the organization showed interest in the Y’s future plans, the Y loaded Marshall and her colleagues on to a bus and drove them to the dozen areas in Southeast Raleigh considered food deserts. They also visited the Walnut Creek school, where the Y provides PTA services and hosts school carnivals.
“The school’s principal got on the bus and said, ‘We couldn’t ask for more. The Y are true partners and what they are doing matters,’ ” says Marshall. “Then, they pulled us up to the flea market (space), and said, ‘Here is our dream.’”
The dream included a mixed-use site with affordable housing, a school, health care options, and access to nutritious food.
“They just went, ‘Wow. What would it look like for that to happen in Raleigh?’” Baker recalls.
That’s when the Promise Project was born. Baker is now in charge of effectively threading together resources, so that no single organization has too much on its shoulders. She believes the project has the potential to radically change the face of Southeast Raleigh, her home.
A half-mile away, the new location of PAVE Charter School is ready to welcome 230 students at the conclusion of summer break. A replication of a charter school that opened 8 years ago in Red Hook, Brooklyn, PAVE’s mission is simple: To help all elementary students prepare to thrive in competitive high schools and four-year colleges.
“We spoke to community members, and we looked at how students of color and students from low-income families were performing in traditional public schools,” says Ariana Kanwit, principal at PAVE. “While, on the whole, Wake County schools do very well, when you look at specific data, there’s a huge need.”
Kanwit has worked in elementary schools for the last 15 years, including traditional public schools and a bilingual school in the Bronx. For three years, she served as a dean at PAVE in Brooklyn before opening the Southeast Raleigh charter this year.
“I have a deep knowledge of how we do things and why we do them,” she says. “We have an enormously strong, inspired team. Every teacher here is incredibly invested in our kids.”
The school opened this year with 120 kindergarten and first-grade students. Because they’ve fulfilled their recruitment targets, next year PAVE will nearly double in size.
To accommodate the influx of new students, the school will relocate over the summer to the former Upper Room Christian Academy, near Southeast Raleigh High School. In addition to extra classroom space, the move also brings a gymnasium and auditorium, soccer fields and science labs.
Kanwit says PAVE’s recruiting was exclusively focused on Southeast Raleigh, which meant knocking on doors, speaking in local churches, and partnering with local day cares and organizations like the Boys & Girls Club. Kanwit pitches a rigorous curriculum, warm environment, and a commitment to offer free transportation and breakfast, lunch, and snack to every student, regardless of income.
“We work closely with the Promise Project, and we are honored to be sitting next to so many leaders in the community doing transformational work,” says Kanwit. “Education doesn’t solve things, health doesn’t solve things, housing doesn’t solve things, faith-based organizations don’t solve things. None of us can make change in a silo. None of us can be successful unless we’re all successful.”
Like a beacon
Across the street from the Y’s future home, a freshly constructed 35,000 square-foot facility rises off of Rock Quarry Road like a beacon. It’s the new location of Advance Community Health, another organization that’s working to engage and provide for Southeast Raleigh.
The community health center aims to get patients proactively involved in their own health care. Advance Community Health provides access to care regardless of means, and includes adult medicine, pediatrics, dental care, senior care, and a pharmacy under one roof. It’s a massive upgrade to the facility the organization has held on Tarboro Street since 1972, and involves a complete change in the scope of the work they do as well.
“We used to treat the people that walked through our door, and we only treated what they brought in our door,” says Penny Washington, chief executive officer of the organization. “Health care has changed, and the community is demanding more. It’s a different level of responsibility we’ve taken on.”
Washington smiles as she talks about her plans for the future of her organization, and for Southeast Raleigh as a whole. After 28 years, she feels she finally has the resources she needs to make the kind of impact she’s always dreamed of.
“We were the little engine that could, and now we have the opportunity to really make an impact on this community,” Washington says. “We’ve always had the title of community health center, but now it really feels like it.”
Before the new building opened, the team at Advance spent months soliciting community feedback to learn what residents wanted in a health care facility. Those conversations resulted in monthly health clinics, a computer center, and partnerships with organizations like Interfaith Food Shuttle and the soon-to-be YMCA across the street.
“There are so many neat things in the Y approach that we want to be a part of,” says Dr. Michelle Bucknor, chief medical officer at Advance. “Our niche is great primary care. We do all the rest in collaboration with other organizations.”
Elaine Brown, who led the charge on the construction of the new facility, says it’s a preventative and proactive approach. At 67, the Raleigh native has a youthful radiance. She first came to Advance Community Health as a patient in 2001.
Back then, Brown shared feelings of boredom and frustration with her doctor. Her career had ended prematurely, and she was looking for something to keep her occupied. Brown’s doctor encouraged her to consider joining Advance’s board, which she did the following year. Fourteen years later, Brown became the organization’s board chair.
“I do a lot of community outreach work, and since I grew up here, there are leaders who I have known since I was a little kid,” Brown says. “I really can call up (city councilman) Eugene Weeks and ask if I can speak with him after dinner to tell him what we need.” She pauses for a hearty laugh, and then adds: “Of course, I’ll email first.”
As both a patient and a caretaker for her mother, Brown understands the responsibility that comes with facilitating health care for yourself and family members, too.
“The simplest thing that this new facility will provide is logistical convenience for our patients,” she says. Brown has three appointments a week: two for her mother, and one for herself. But at Advance, the pair gets all of their needs met under one roof, and can even fill their prescriptions and ensure no medications are adversely interacting before they leave the building.
Brown praises the ongoing, evolving understanding of the way healthcare influences community – and vice-versa. She’s also happy to see how organizations in Southeast Raleigh have joined together to positively influence the future of the region.
“We concentrate on housing and jobs, too, because if you’re on a program that provides medicine, but if you can’t store your medicine, or you can’t read the bottle…” she pauses. “We really can’t deliver good primary health care unless we address all of those issues. We’re trying to empower the whole person. That’s going to reduce crime, that’s going to make a better community.”
Kia Baker agrees, and ties the focus on Southeast Raleigh to a larger trend of a booming downtown, which she says sometimes grows at the detriment of long-term residents. That’s why she’s dedicated herself to the collective impact approach offered by organizations like the YMCA and Advance Community Health.
“Growth is a good thing,” Baker says. “However, if we don’t have support or affordable housing guaranteed for a healthy community – and healthy communities have people of all economic ranges – then we’re going to be in trouble. We’ve all got to work together, and with our city, to think long-term.”