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A Portrait of Hope

Dec 16, 2013, 4:46 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Artist Chuck Connelly Artist Chuck Connelly and his monumental remembrance of the children of Sandy Hook

I first came to know Chuck Connelly in April of last year. He’s a gifted, famous and often controversial artist, whose work has appeared in countless galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s very much his own man, and that man can be difficult. A writer once described Connelly as “Norman Rockwell on acid—a maverick narrative painter pushing the limits of myth into a modern malaise all his own.”

It’s a left-handed compliment, but there’s no getting around the undeniable truth: Chuck Connelly is an extraordinary talent. He may come across as a rumpled, dark-witted cynic, but on the inside, he is a luminous soul.

So here’s how I came to know Chuck Connelly. He’s an Irish-American who lives in Philly's East Oak Lane neighborhood, and I co-author a blog devoted to Irish culture in Philadelphia. So for our purposes, Connelly was grist for the mill.

And so it was that I found myself on the topmost floor of a ramshackle barn one dreary day last April, gazing upon Connelly’s most recent magnum opus: twenty painstakingly detailed oils on canvas, each one bearing the likeness of a first grader murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. All of the paintings were clustered in a simple 10- by 12-foot wooden frame. The entire assembly towered over us. It was a breathtaking, shattering remembrance.
 

When news of the shooting broke, Connelly reacted as the rest of us did, with horror, frustration and anger. A couple of days later, he started painting a portrait of one of the young victims, 6-year-old Emilie Parker. At first, he wasn’t sure where the project was taking him. At that point, it really wasn’t a project. “I started to do the one, Emilie, when it first happened,” Connelly explained to me. “Her face was everywhere. I just thought ... what a tragedy. So I painted her. Then I made Dylan (Hockley), and then I thought ... you know what? I gotta do them all.”

Last week, Connelly’s “Children of Sandy Hook” went on display at Villanova University to commemorate the one-year anniversary.

As that anniversary arrived last weekend, I thought about Chuck Connelly’s heartfelt tribute. It caused me to wonder, probably for the millionth time, when we’re ever going to come to grips with the problem of gun violence. Every shot fired wounds us all.

Here at RWJF, we have devoted a great deal of effort toward understanding gun violence and how to prevent it. One well-known example of our work in this area is grantee Cure Violence, formerly Ceasefire.

Here’s how we describe the program:

Cure Violence uses a public health model to reduce gun violence. By treating violence as a learned behavior that can be “unlearned,” Cure Violence offers a solution to a problem that had been seen as unsolvable.”

Obviously, gun violence is one aspect of a much broader and disturbing picture. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that violence of all kinds is a plague in the United States, and from our description of Cure Violence, you can begin to understand our response to it. We approach violence as a critical public health issue, and that point of view determines our course of action.

A recent example of our work to curb violence further illustrates that particular approach. It revolves around the issue of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. That’s a wonky term, but it is meant to describe and encompass the horrors routinely visited upon children, mostly in the form of abuse and neglect. Many of these children live a nightmarish existence.

Some might say we’re swimming against the tide on this one, but we are, as my colleague Susan Promislo wrote in this space a few months ago, “witnessing a health revolution.” Childhood trauma was the subject of a recent summit in Philadelphia, a confab that garnered a great deal of national attention. Throughout the country, more and more experts are turning their expertise to the problem of ACEs, and many of them are doing pioneering work to understand the problem’s causes, document its long-term emotional and physical damage, and develop creative and effective long-term solutions.

From our work, we know that there are no simple answers to countering childhood trauma—or any other kind of violence. Just a few weeks after the Newtown tragedy, a report by Kevin Freking in the Huffington Post cited a particularly painful statistic: “The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents.”

I find myself pondering those damning numbers. Can we really do what we want to do? Can we really make the country a better, less violent place? Sometimes it seems impossible. But if there’s one thing I have come to know about this place, it’s that most of us are incredibly hopeful. You can’t work here and not be an optimist at heart. It would be easy to throw up our hands and give up, but no one here gives up.

If the tragedy of Newtown tells us anything, it’s this: When it comes to the challenge of violence in America, if we are to prevail, we must be guided by hope. And to paraphrase one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes: We can never, never give up.

Jeff Meade is a senior writer/producer for rwjf.org.



Health Policy Wit or Wit-Out Consumer Input

Dec 13, 2013, 10:56 AM, Posted by David Adler

CU RWJF Meeting Consumer advocates brainstorm about rising health care costs.

Whether you’re a Philadelphia native, a visitor, or just a cheesesteak aficionado, you need to know how to order. When you get to the front of the line at one of Philadelphia’s long-established cheesesteak stands you order your sandwich wit or wit-out. Either with onions or without. Whatever you do, don’t stand at the window and first think about this important decision. Let’s just say it won’t end well. But, as much as I love cheesesteaks (in moderation of course) this is not the most important wit or wit out decision we have to make as a country.

The decision we really need to make is how we want our health policy decisions made. You can have it wit or wit out consumer input. At a recent meeting on health care costs sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Consumers Union, my colleague Anne Weiss drove this point home.

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the gist of her remarks (and indeed of the meeting) was that efforts to contain spending and to get more value out of our health care system are going to come about with or without consumer input. She wants it to proceed with it. In other words, Anne’s ordering her health care value steak wit. I second her choice. Personally I think it’s ridiculous to eat a cheesesteak without onions, and I think it’s equally problematic to address health care costs without consumer input.

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Putting the Great in Grateful

Dec 9, 2013, 11:31 AM, Posted by Joan Barlow

Photo courtesy of Mercer Street Friends Photo courtesy of Mercer Street Friends

We all have the ability to do something great, even if it’s in the smallest gesture.

I love Thanksgiving because it’s “four days, no presents.” There is no need to get caught up in the grind of competitive decorating, shopping ‘til you drop, or agonizing over finding the right gift for that special person. It’s food, family, fun—and, of course, gratitude. After all, you can’t say Thanksgiving without the thanks.

I was lucky to learn at an early age how fortunate I’ve been and I try  to express my gratitude as much as possible. To be healthy, surrounded by family is a true blessing, even when coupled with difficult times. In recent years, I’ve been especially thankful for the opportunity to work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). My extended family at work is made up of warm, caring people who are passionate about our mission to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to lead healthy and fulfilling lives—those same opportunities that I’ve been afforded.

In addition to the Foundation’s national efforts, RWJF makes a special effort in its home state of New Jersey. So last week, several colleagues and I volunteered at Mercer Street Friends Food Bank in Trenton—the largest source of government- and privately-donated food in Mercer County. The Food Bank channels 3 million pounds of food annually to the various food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

During our day there, we sifted and sorted, checked expiration dates on donated foods, and, because of the time of year, loaded up bags of Thanksgiving fixings for distribution for many of the 25,000 people at risk for hunger in Mercer County. These are families who go without what many of us often take for granted. It was interesting to me that the cellphones never appeared; there wasn’t that tug to keep checking email or follow Twitter feeds. It wasn’t spoken, but I think we all realized that what we were doing was too important, and deserved all our respect and attention. Even though our effort was small—after all, it was only one day—in someone else’s eyes it might be seen as something great.

As we worked, it brought to light for many of us the sheer volume of food needed, as well as what it takes to put together healthy offerings and supplies for the working poor, children in low-income households, the elderly, disabled, and homeless. I also reflected that, while Thanksgiving is a day when we do recognize what others do without, we don’t often remember that these families live in poverty and need our help—not just around Thanksgiving—but all year long. And not having basic everyday necessities, like nutritious food, can severely impact the health of families, particularly children.

So maybe Thanksgiving shouldn’t come only once a year. After all, aren’t we thankful for the things we have every day? The power of gratitude should be recognized as a challenge to be great—even in the smallest of efforts. Maybe that’s the magic about it.

I was proud—no, I was grateful—to work at Mercer Street Friends, and I will do it again. So as we enter the holiday season, count your blessings each and every day and let gratitude drive you to greatness.

Joan Barlow is the Foundation's Creative Services Manager.

Get Out of the Drive-Thru Lane. Learn to Cook!

Nov 22, 2013, 1:32 PM, Posted by Cathy Arnst

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Some statistics worth pondering: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends only 33 minutes a day on food preparation. Just over half of Americans bother to cook every day. On the other hand, 33 percent of children and 41 percent of teenagers eat fast food, every single day.

These fast food children are consuming 126 additional calories, and the teens 310 extra calories, than if they had avoided the chains, says Fast Food Facts 2013, a new report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and funded by RWJF. Most of these children are eating adult meals, too, not the smaller-portioned children’s meals on offer. Not that it would matter, since less than one percent of all kids’ meal served at fast food chains meet recommended nutrition standards.

It’s not much of a stretch to link the lack of home cooking, a diet of fast food, and the fact that a third of U.S. children and adolescents are obese. So, what’s a parent to do? Well for one thing, we could learn to cook.

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Scaling Equals Cultural Transformation

Aug 31, 2013, 9:51 PM, Posted by Jane Isaacs Lowe

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On RWJF’s Vulnerable Populations team, we look for ideas that we believe are going to transform a field; that will create the impetus for significant social change. When we find those ideas, our goal is to take them to scale.

Contrary to popular belief, scaling does not mean hiring more people or growing a bigger organization. When we talk about scaling, it’s about supporting an idea to allow for radical transformation. It is our contribution to creating a culture of health.

One of the ideas that we’re currently working to take to scale is the Green House Project, which aims to transform the culture of long-term care. We’ve tested the model repeatedly in a number of locations and now we’re trying to get it greater national visibility so that it can have the significant impact on the field of long-term care that we believe it can—and should.

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Move Over, Richard Kiley. Here’s Why We Want to Combine Public Health Data with Health Care Data

Aug 19, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

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We’re announcing today a new $100,000 prize as part of the Knight Foundation’s latest News Challenge, which seeks innovative ideas to harness information and data for the health of communities. The RWJF award is for those entrants who combine public health data with data from health care to improve the health of communities. The Knight Foundation itself has committed $2 million to the contest, as well.

The reason we want to combine public health data with health care data is because of the potential the combined data has to drive real improvements and innovation. When we were discussing this, one of my colleagues broke out with “To dream the impossible dream.” While he couldn’t match Kiley’s sonorous baritone, he did capture the ambition in the song.

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Scott Simon, His Mom, and Twitter: A Very Public Death

Jul 31, 2013, 4:06 PM, Posted by Cathy Arnst

Scott Simon

Scott Simon is a popular radio host on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday. His mother, Patricia Lyons Gilband, a former actress, died July 29 at 7:17 p.m., in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a Chicago hospital. But you might already know that, if you are one of Simon’s 1.2 million Twitter followers, because he has been live Tweeting her final days since July 23.  

Judging by the many articles, comments, retweets, and reactions bouncing around the web, Simon’s 140-character dispatches from the frontline of death have been moving and inspirational for most—and gag-inducing for some, who believe death should be a private affair. Having lost a parent and a spouse—and both died in an ICU—I’m with the first group.

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Thank You for Your Health

Jul 30, 2013, 2:18 PM, Posted by Jody L. Struve

Fall River Fitness Challenge_Close

Here at RWJF, we are looking everywhere for good ideas. The other day, I found inspiration in a typo: “Thank you for your health,” a colleague signed her email, when she meant to write help.

I thanked her back: “Thank you for your health, too!”  And, as I hit reply, amused by my little joke, I realized my smile was connected to something deeper than simple wordplay—I felt, for that moment, like a good citizen.

Now admittedly, I’m someone who can get goose bumps when reminded of our basic humanity by a politely held open door. But thanking someone for their health, especially after just being recognized appreciatively for mine, snapped into focus how our health, our own personal health and what we do with it, impacts everyone around us—as clearly as tossing an empty can into the recycling bin.

We each have an active role to play in being good health citizens.

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A Culture of Empowerment, a Culture of Health

Jul 22, 2013, 4:15 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas

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The thin, paper-like hospital gown. Open. Exposing. Awkward. The perfect symbol for what health care in America represents for most of us.

As a bit of context, last week I spent three days with a group of amazing women from across the health care industry at an RWJF-sponsored forum hosted by the Association of American Medical Colleges. At that meeting, a key part of the discussion centered on where the opportunity for meaningful, collective, action might lie to catalyze dramatic system transformation. More than once, the hospital gown metaphor came up.

To me, though, this symbol represents much more than a call for system transformation—I see it as a battle cry for empowerment.

Let me explain.

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Why Microbes and Albert Einstein are a Part of Our Culture of Health

Jul 19, 2013, 4:09 PM, Posted by Anna Heling

This is the second in a series. Read the first here.

Promoting a “culture of health” isn’t just a 9-to-5 job for RWJF employees; many of them also use their time out of the office to further their push toward health and well-being. As Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO, describes it, creating a culture of health means having “the kind of values where we can say health, and the policies and practices that go into making sure we are a healthy community, are as much a part of us as are the values that say we pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Below, three more members of the RWJF crew talk about how they’re furthering this healthy mindset throughout the summer months.

 

BRINGING ROLLERBLADING BACK: Christine Nieves (Program Associate, Pioneer Team)

For Nieves, this summer is all about conquering fears. Although she spent her teenage years rollerblading in her native Puerto Rico, her hiatus from the wheels translated into being “terrified” of the activity. Even so, she’s spending her free time getting back into the groove of rollerblading while simultaneously exploring local parks. “It’s more than exercise,” she said. “It’s getting over things that make me nervous and that I’m afraid to do. It’s looking at the things that hold me back and building confidence.”

Nieves and her boyfriend/pseudo-rollerblading coach have already taken to the paved paths of Mercer County Park and Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve (with a goal of rolling around Princeton Stadium “when no one’s looking”).

Lazy patterns of physical activity can lead into lazy patterns of thought, Nieves said, and she reminds herself of this Albert Einstein quote when she’s feeling the urge to slouch on the couch: “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

Added Nieves, “Maintaining a culture of health is something that helps me maintain my mind and set physical, professional, and personal goals for myself. I think of it as a holistic thing.”

 

OPENING THAT WINDOW: Lori Melichar (Senior Program Officer, Research & Evaluation)

The New York City dweller was struck by a recent RWJF talk about microbes, the trillions of microorganisms invisible to the naked eye that surround us and interact with our bodies and the environment. Biologist, engineer, and ecologist Jessica Green visited the Foundation and said that our secure, built environment – the buildings where we live, work, and play – may not be the healthiest. By holding tight control over our environments and keeping the outdoors out and the indoors in, Green said the microbes around us are less diverse, which studies suggest increases our risk of interacting with potential pathogens.

With this in mind, Melichar is doing what she can to ramp up her microbial variety. “For one of my recent meetings I went on a walking meeting around the Foundation,” she said. “The way I used to think about that was walking for exercise, and now I think about it as getting a little bit of variation in my microbes. I’d never thought before about this, but it seems like there’s the potential for this variation to be health-increasing.”

She said even opening the window a crack can help: “If you have the window open a bit, microbes from the trees and from the birds and from everything else outside can mix with everything inside that hasn’t gotten out…because we have double-doors on everything.”

 

“GREEN-IFYING” THE HOME: Linda Manning (Program Team Coordinator, Program Service Center)

Along with a 60-year-old house come inevitable renovations, but Manning is choosing to make them green ones. After a faulty lawnmower spit out a rock, breaking a window in her Hamilton home, she and her husband decided to replace their basement windows with those that are more energy efficient.

They’re also re-landscaping to combat the hungry creatures chomping away at the yard. “Rather than spraying all the flowers and plants with a spray – which isn’t always friendly to the environment – we decided to change a lot of the plants to those that will discourage the animals from snacking on them,” Manning said.

Keeping her home tidy and up-to-date helps her stay healthy, too. “I’ve had a lot of health problems that are not controlled by the environment, but I find that, if I do these things, it makes me feel better,” she said. “It makes me feel good that I have a really clean home. I think it just makes everybody healthier.”