At the Harbach-Ripley Center, There's Always Something Afoot

INSIGHTS :  May. 11, 2016 HEALTH

Ryan Holeywell | May 11, 2016Every week, 500 members of the community come through the center, where they take classes in everything from martial arts to vegan cooking.

Group of people looking into a garden

Every week, 500 members of the community come through the center, where they take classes in everything from martial arts to vegan cooking.

Instructors teach community members about healthy eatings at the Harbach-Ripley Neighborhood Center. Instructors teach community members about healthy eating at the Harbach-Ripley Neighborhood Center.

Walk out the back door of the Harbach-Ripley Neighborhood Center, and you'll find yourself in a garden oasis -- that you can eat.

Planted in 75 raised garden beds are seemingly every vegetable you can think of. Beautiful eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and shard, along with herbs like rosemary, cilantro and mint, thrive under the watchful eyes of community members who tend the plants.

The garden is the crowning gem of the facility, but it's far from its only amenity.

In fact, at any given time, the center is teaming with activity, from martial arts lessons to nutrition courses to health screenings to cooking classes. Every week, about 500 community members pass through the center's doors, says Cassie Jones, the center's health and wellness manager.

Located about 2.5 miles northwest of Houston's Hobby Airport, Harbach-Ripley is housed in a former elementary school (today, part of the facility remains a charter school).

Click image below for an interactive 3D view of the community garden.

Click photo for a 3D interactive view of the garden. Click above image for an interactive 3D view of the garden.

Despite the slew of services, there's a unifying mission that ties them all together: the desire to help community members "earn, learn, and belong," says Jane Bavineau, vice president of senior services at Neighborhood Centers Inc., the nonprofit that runs the facility. In other words, everything that happens at Harbach-Ripley is meant to help the people who visit learn useful skills and ultimately feel like they're valuable members of the community.

On Wednesday, officials with Neighborhood Centers Inc. opened Harbach-Ripley's doors to fellows attending the Next City Vanguard 2016 conference, co-hosted by Next City and Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The conference focuses on how to promote equity in urban places. That made Harbach-Ripley the perfect place to see how one of the country's most innovative nonprofits is working to execute that vision.

At the facility, members of the community can learn about nutrition from instructors, then practice shopping for healthy food in a miniature, simulated grocery store. The idea is to reinforce and practice healthy shopping. Residents can take healthy cooking classes there too. "Once you get this really weird dragon kale, you can learn what to do with it," Jones said.

Those types of lessons are pertinent in a city where obesity and diabetes are major public health concerns, especially for low-income residents who often find access to healthy foods to be a challenge.

Meanwhile, on just about any given day, there's some sort of community group providing information or instruction at the facility. On Wednesday, officials from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center were providing information about how to protect against skin cancer. An Alzheimer's organization was giving a presentation as well.

"We have partners in the community constantly coming in with educational programs," Johnson said. "It will look completely different next week. It will look completely different tomorrow."

And the classes happen at all hours. During the day, the facility caters to stay-at-home moms, who set the agenda for meals in the household. At night, students and those who have jobs during the day attend classes. "There are some families that are here every day," Johnson said.

In the same facility, dozens of senior citizens gather daily for a healthy meal and good company. Harbach-Ripley is one of 17 Neighborhood Centers sites that offer a group meal program. But the ultimate aim is to put together something more meaningful than "bingo and lunch," said Meggin Lorino, Neighborhood Centers' senior director for senior services.

The nonprofit, she says, is focusing on "whole person wellness," or in other words, finding ways to promote health that goes beyond the body. It will work with seniors to explore their creative health, spiritual health, and other interpretations of "health."

On Wednesday, Neighborhood Centers Inc. charged the Vanguard conference fellows with helping to brainstorm ways of facilitating that goal through "intergenerational programming," or ongoing interaction between the facility's young and old constituents. The idea is that both age groups benefit from that type of interaction. But it's not always easy to foster.

As it stands, the facility already has some of those types of programs. The young and old participate in farming and gardening together, for example. Another community center has a regular walking program that pairs elementary school students with senior citizens every other week, which officials say is promising.

But Harbach-Ripley is seeking more regular and more structured programming that promotes interaction between the two groups. And that's where it's seeking input from Vanguards and others in the community.

"We don't do this work alone," said Claudia Vasquez, senior vice president and chief program officer at Neighborhood Centers Inc. "We do nothing alone."

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Ryan Holeywell
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