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PEOPLE OF THE HILL: Karen Wells, VPM PBS KIDS

Now that The Market @ 25th has opened, we wanted to introduce you to some friends who did amazing work in planning, and maintaining the vision for a welcoming community space for all to meet. 

Meet Karen Wells, the PBS KIDS East End Engagement Manager, who through VPM, has welcomed kids of Church Hill into the store.

Karen has opened the space for story times with local leaders, conversations with parents, and ‘Appy Hours’ where the kids have the opportunity to play educational games on tablets. We wanted to know more about Karen and what inspired her work to educate the children of our neighborhood on healthy eating. 

Karen’s engagement with the community didn’t just begin with VPM PBS KIDS. She’s been here since she was a kid. Karen has spent countless summer days on her grandmother’s front porch, blocks away from the new market. She reminisced over afternoons there as a child, and then again, long days of work on the same porch, as she began her career as an adult.

I met with Karen at the PBS KIDS Hub at the Market @ 25th and we discussed how her involvement manifested.

Karen said; “In 2017-2018 I was working with American Heart Association on a program to address nutrition and other indicators of social health with the catalyst being the interest in this grocery store. So, I initially got my start when the store was in its infancy. Discussions were happening around who was going to be the operator and those sorts of things. At that time I was working closely with community partners and the goal was to address the issue of the community of Church Hill being a food desert.”

“Typically in food deserts there are other resources lacking, such as access to early childhood education, which is what I am working on now with PBS KIDS.

Karen continued, “There’s also employment barriers. So, it may come down to not lacking the resources, but barriers to them that are in place, that other communities don’t face. With my involvement in the beginning in 2017, the question was, how do we create a system of rattling some of those barriers? Is it partnerships with other organizations that can meet those needs, is it private opportunities to strengthen organizations that already exist?

What we found was relationships with organizations that had strong roots in the community were the most important. That was how we could push the needle on things like nutrition education and employment access. I found, it was really about strengthening what all these great partners were already doing. The beginning of my work with the Market was grant funded, and I knew that potentially my work in Church Hill would end and I knew I wasn’t done. I had worked with PBS in the community and heard about the opportunity with PBS KIDS to continue to address the social determinants of health and partner with the community at the hub in the store.” 

That topic, social determinants of health, popped up multiple times throughout our talk and I asked Karen to expound upon it, and how those types of things can negatively or positively impact a community. 

Karen said; “This is a new way of looking at an old problem, basically saying that, your zip code can determine your quality of life, and your life expectancy. 

For example you could live in this zip code and your life expectancy rate would be 10 to 20 years less than someone 15 to 20 miles away from you.

So those social determinants really impact communities. Things like access to employment, good housing, education, nutritious food, education about nutritious foods. If your community has barriers to those things, that other communities don’t have then that is going to affect how you live, and what your health is, what your mental and emotional state of being is.” 

For Karen, this isn’t an esoteric concept that sociologists are debating, or some humanitarian study in a foreign place. She understands the direct impacts of these barriers, right here in Church Hill. 

“I grew up here. My Great Grandmother moved my Great Great Grandparents here. They all lived in a home that we still have. Everyone in our family has lived in that home at some point. That’s just the culture of Church Hill. You’re never alone here” 

Connection to the Past

Karen and I walked from The Market to her family home. She told me more about her family and the connection, not just to her community, but to the work she is so passionate about. As we reached the home, I thought about what she had told me of its history. 

“My Great Great Grandmother passed in that home from a stroke. My Great Grandmother passed away in that home from a stroke. My Grandmother passed away in that home, from what we believe to be a stroke. My Father and I talk about this, that we don’t want the same trend of passing away from a stroke to just be the norm of what is happening in Church Hill.”

I knew in 2016, when I first heard rumors about the store, I knew I wanted to be in there, that I wanted to be a part of nutritional education. Then to be a year later working with the Markels, and now with VPM, having the capacity to do more than I could have dreamed.”

Future of the Space

When I asked Karen what were her goals for the future of the PBS KIDS hub she said, “There is this wealth of resources, there is a whole new program called VPN PBS KIDS which emphasizes placing the resources in the hands of families and communities where there isn’t as much access, or there are barriers to access to early childhood education that don’t exist in other communities.”

“I really want to see this become something that is lead by our community.

We aren’t here to tell you what you should be doing. We think our parents are doing wonderful jobs. You don’t hear a lot of the great things that happen with our families in Church Hill, just like we don’t hear a lot of great things about Church Hill as a community. That’s why it was important to us to emphasize that here at the store. I think PBS KIDS is only here to strengthen the great things our parents are doing. Focusing on how we can get these resources into their hands. If you want to lead an activity, I want to be the person that says “I have the resources you need, I’m here to support your program”. I want to create that culture for parents here where they feel like there are opportunities to strengthen education in a way that is feasible, in a way that is fun, in a way they like, and their kids enjoy, and allow them to determine what is most useful for them.” 

The PBS KIDS hub at The Market @ 25th offers some great programming.

“We will be starting the 2019-2020 school year with opportunities to meet and greet with through activities called “Coffee with Karen”. These are “drop in” activities with me where families will enjoy coffee, juice and snacks and discuss the role of PBS KIDS in the community and what some of the expectations our families will have of us. Kids will able to explore some fun interactive learning activities and PBS KIDS shows and apps while the grown ups chat.”  

We encourage you to follow them on social media. Get in touch with Karen to learn not only about upcoming events, but how you can get involved to help shape the lives of Church Hill’s next generation.

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7 comments

Adrienne Cole Johnson
Adrienne Cole Johnson 08/05/2019 at 12:47 PM

loved reading this article. thanks for your contributions Karen!

Reply
Karen J. Wells
Karen J. Wells 08/05/2019 at 6:20 PM

Adrienne Cole Johnson thanks for always sharing that Black Girl Magic with me and everything you touch

Reply
Mavis Greene
Mavis Greene 08/05/2019 at 3:52 PM

As her mom I am so proud of her.. her genuineness always shines thru

Reply
Karen J. Wells
Karen J. Wells 08/05/2019 at 6:21 PM

Mavis Greene we are Church Hill women. There’s is no other way to shine! Thanks mom!

Reply
Aaron-Paula Thompson
Aaron-Paula Thompson 08/05/2019 at 9:21 PM

Look at Karen go!!!

Reply
Steve Markel
Steve Markel 08/05/2019 at 10:07 PM

Thank you, Karen

Reply
Melissa Ansley Brooks
Melissa Ansley Brooks 08/06/2019 at 12:09 AM

Karen J. Wells…. You are a treasure!

Reply

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