Dr. LeChauncy Woodard, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the community engagement core at HEALTH-RCMI at the University of Houston. Credit: University of Houston

A team of University of Houston students is actively addressing the needs of Houston’s marginalized communities.

Since launching the inaugural HEALTH-RCMI Student Cadre in 2022, these students have dedicated a year to embark on a mission to engage, serve and uplift the Third Ward community. With the guidance of Dr. LeChauncy Woodard, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the community engagement core at HEALTH-RCMI, their approach to community involvement emphasizes listening, cultural humility and long-term sustainability.

Their approach’s cornerstone is actively listening to the community’s needs. The goal is to create solutions that address community needs and can be maintained, avoiding the pitfalls of projects that falter when priorities shift or funding becomes uncertain.

“Rather than the students saying, ‘Well, we have this idea to help the community, let’s go out and do this project,’ we have them actively listening to the community they serve,” she said. “We want to know the needs of our community partners and identify the challenges before implementing strategies for solutions.”

One notable achievement of the Student Cadre has been their partnership with Boynton Chapel Methodist Church under the guidance of Pastor Linda Davis. The students identified a need expressed in the Third Ward: delivering healthy food and COVID-19 supplies to address the issues of food insecurity.

“University of Houston sits within the Third Ward community. The community surrounds us every day,” Woodard said. “We want to be a trusted entity, where our community members partner with us so that we can better respond to the broader health and wellbeing of the community.”

Last year, the student cadre started with four people. Now, it has grown to six.

Woodard said the work is an “iterative process” that takes ongoing engagement to craft a solution-based strategy. During the project at Boynton Chapel Methodist Church, the students realized Davis had regular food pantries. They asked themselves, “Who are the individuals who can’t come to church?” and “How can they be served?”

Woodard said sustainability is a critical consideration for the Student Cadre. They aim to ensure that the benefits they provide continue without interruption.

“We don’t want to provide a resource that is valued and then when we don’t have funding or when our students graduate and move on, that we aren’t able to continue where we left off,” Woodard said. “This is the important part of the trust-building process.”

Woodard’s passion for community collaboration is deeply rooted in her upbringing in Houston’s Acres Homes neighborhood. Her commitment to working with underserved communities is motivated by personal experiences of health disparities in her family. She has witnessed individuals from different communities suffering from treatable conditions at a young age and strives to make a difference in these underserved populations.

“The Acres Homes community is one of the most medically underserved communities in the Houston and Harris County area, so the work I do as a medical professional means so much to me,” she said. “This is a full circle moment that I hope the students will also feel one day in their careers.”

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...