Marilynn Martinez and her brother Divad were missing a lot of school. Officials said their parents, Maria and Cesar, were lying that asthma attacks kept the kids at home.
On top of that, their 5-year-old son, Yerek, was showing signs of developing asthma, too.
The parents were getting desperate. Health care workers contacted the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.
The organization assessed the Martinez home. The assessment showed that mold, dust, sagging walls and other problems made their rental house beyond the alliance's ability to fix.
And Marilynn and Divad were literally struggling to breathe there.
Healthy Kids representatives helped the family understand their tenant rights and connected them with agencies that could help them relocate. Earlier this year, they moved to a nicer house not far from the old one.
The turnaround in her children's health has been amazing, Maria said. Seven-year-old Divad, who was taking at least 13 pills a day, is down to two. Marilynn, at 17 a talented violinist set to graduate from high school, is no longer taking any asthma medication. School officials have apologized for not believing the Martinezes.
That's one example of how the Healthy Kids Alliance is making children in this city safer and healthier — one house at a time.
Now the alliance has received a huge boost toward fulfilling its mission. With the help of the Omaha Community Foundation, Healthy Kids got a $750,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation. The Omaha group is one of only six programs in the country to receive money through Kresge's Advancing Safe and Healthy Homes Initiative. With the grant, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance has three years to address lead hazards, asthma triggers, security and damaged or aging construction at 120 Omaha houses to make them healthier and safer.
The organization used some of the grant money to bolster staff to seven full-time employees and three interns, said Kara Eastman, president and CEO. There also are funds in the grant for a city position, a full-time healthy homes inspector.
Each house the alliance targets is allotted an average of $1,500. For some, it's simply a matter of installing carbon monoxide alarms or adding railings to porches. Those types of low-cost fixes help offset the cost of more major projects at other houses.
Representatives from Healthy Kids recently attended a Kresge Foundation conference in California, said Clayton Evans, a healthy homes specialist for the alliance. There they decided on two main goals: sustainability of both the work to be done and the Healthy Kids organization itself — which includes finding additional revenue sources.
Healthy Kids partners with other groups to do some of the work or pay for certain things, and looks for agencies to donate items or services.
“We want to keep the groups and assistance from overlapping,” Eastman said of the agency cooperation.
For instance, she said, “OPPD just donated 600 compact fluorescent bulbs for the homes we work in through our Kresge grant.”
Eastman emphasized that you can find unhealthy homes all over the city. She tells of a Dundee mother who was unintentionally poisoning her new baby with lead dust because she had scraped paint out of window wells, thinking she was making the baby's room safer.
“We don't judge,” Eastman added. “People shouldn't be apprehensive about asking for help.”
Although the Healthy Kids Alliance responds to any request for a home assessment, another agency — such as a city office, social services, a housing organization or clinic — must refer families for the Kresge program.
Seven school-based clinics work with the alliance, as do OneWorld Community Health Centers and the Charles Drew Health Center. They refer families with children who are missing school because of asthma and are living in conditions that promote asthma attacks.
Those conditions no longer exist for the Martinez family. Alliance healthy home specialists recently met with Maria to assess her new house. Smiling, she showed them her clean, lovingly decorated home.
The alliance team used a special vacuum to gather dust from window wells, the basement and other locations in the house. Those samples will be tested for allergens, lead and mold at a lab out of state.
But aside from a few minor problems, the alliance representatives believe the new house is healthy.
So far, Evans said, projects in about 35 homes are underway in different stages, many still in the assessment phase.
Work on Yolanda Dorsey's home in north Omaha is just getting started, and it's already apparent that it won't be a mere $1,500, even with volunteers and donated items and services.
Dorsey, mother of LaMicheal, 16, and Laya, 4, was referred to the Healthy Kids Alliance for her problem, an old house — actually the house she grew up in — that needs structural work as well as cleanup and lead removal. So far, volunteers have cleaned tons of refuse out of the basement and the back porch. ReEnergize put in a new water heater and changed light bulbs to be more energy-efficient.
“There are no words to explain how grateful I am,” Dorsey said as she showed off a now-empty basement and wiped away tears.
But there are still multiple problems upstairs that need to be addressed.
“We'll find the people and the funds to finish it for her,” Evans said.
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