In 1994, Johnson and the late George Grimley (also of Emory University) decided that to better care for children, the two had to go where the children were. Health disparities were not a focus at the time. Rather, access to health care was the primary issue they were trying to address. They set up the Whitefoord Elementary School-Based Center, located in Southeast Atlanta, as a typical practice with pediatric primary health services for the children who attended the school and their preschool siblings. Johnson and Grimley’s goal was to increase access to quality health care and thereby improve the academic achievement of the students.
Initially, students came to the clinic when they were sick, and they were treated accordingly. But after 2 or 3 months Johnson discovered that physical health really was not the greatest issue facing the children, and that their health outcomes were not entirely contingent upon whether their ear infection was treated or their asthma was controlled. Instead, the outcomes for children were centered on psychosocial, academic, and family issues. She then saw the clinic as an entry point for interactions with the families. Out of the clinic grew the Whitefoord Community Program, a community-based, community-driven organization designed to care for children in the context of everything that affects their lives, their family, their home, and their community. The program empowers residents to take charge of themselves, their children, and their community.
The Whitefoord Community Program is based on the needs that were identified by the families in the community. Johnson noted that it is very important to go into the community and ask questions. Sometimes there is a tendency to think we know what families, communities, and individuals need, when in fact we really do not. You need to go out and live among people to really begin to understand what their challenges are, and why they do what they do, she said.
Based on the discussions, it was clear that the mission of the program would be greater than just direct medical intervention; in fact, the mission evolved to a focus on working with families in the community to ensure that every child had the ability to succeed in school. The primary need identified was increased access to quality health care to address chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity in the community, as well as issues of youth violence, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and mental health disorders. The families also wanted more affordable, high-quality early childhood education and after-school programs. Some parents said they needed adult literacy and General Educational Development (GED) instruction so that they could better teach and mentor their own children. (Prior to initiation of the program, about 50 percent of the families did