A new Health Equity Zone covering North Smithfield, Cumberland and Lincoln is launching this month to examine sources of inequality and engage residents about health issues in the Blackstone Valley.

The Blackstone Valley Health Equity Zone is part of the HEZ initiative at the Rhode Island Department of Health. The program aims to encourage and equip neighbors and community partners to collaborate to create healthy places to live, learn, work and play, according to the RIDOH website.

On the local level, the Blackstone Valley HEZ will be overseen by the Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, a domestic violence services agency based in Central Falls. According to BVAC Executive Director Toni Marie Gomes, the organization decided to apply for a RIDOH HEZ grant after seeing the success of the Newport HEZ, which is overseen by the Women’s Resource Center.

“BVAC’s been an institution in these communities since 1987 for providing services for victims of domestic and sexual violence. So we have a lot of connections there,” she said. “It made sense for us to work together to bring this service to Cumberland, Lincoln and North Smithfield.”

The $750,000 grant will fund a HEZ project coordinator and programming in the three communities over a period of five years that began on July 1.

In the first year, Gomes said, the organization will conduct a community assessment and recruit partners and community members to be part of the initiative. In the remaining years, they’ll oversee resident-led working groups that will target specific local health issues and evaluate their progress.

“I think the overall goal again is to be able to shine a health equity lens on these communities where we have seen inequity across many socioeconomic and health-related factors,” she said.

Also involved with the initiative are Kimberly Demers, director of community services at BVAC, and Cynthia Roberts, a North Smithfield resident and public health professional who works as an evaluator for both the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Newport HEZ. A few years ago, Roberts co-founded Engage North Smithfield, a resident group that has tried to examine issues through a public health and social equity lens. Much of public health work, she said, involves targeting the root causes behind poor health through strategies such as promoting civic engagement, preventing child abuse, promoting green space, improving access to fruits and vegetables and improving transportation.

“Those sort of strategies create healthy communities so we don’t have things like intimate partner violence and cancer and all of that,” she said.

Though the exact ground-level work of the Blackstone Valley HEZ has yet to be determined, Roberts said HEZs in other locations have focused on projects such as hosting farmers markets, advocating for better transportation, offering mental health training and founding community activities like exercise groups and book clubs.

“All of the HEZs were instrumental in helping during the pandemic to get the word out to residents about safety, vaccinations, protocols, access to healthcare and things like that,” she added.

Demers said the three communities have some glaring disparities between their different neighborhoods. They also share a relatively high population of seniors, she said, which can create its own disparities when it comes to public health.

North Smithfield, Cumberland and Lincoln were among the remaining communities of the Blackstone Valley that did not have a grant-supported HEZ. Woonsocket has its own HEZ, and Pawtucket and Centrals Falls share a HEZ.

Gomes said the organization is currently in the process of hiring a project coordinator. Once that individual is in place, they plan to begin identifying working groups and looking at inequities across the three communities.

“I’m hopeful it will bring communities together to learn about what they share and what they want to accomplish,” she said.

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