BALTIMORE – Willie Flowers surveys the fast-food-filled intersection of Reisterstown Road and Cold Spring Lane in West Baltimore — an area he calls, “the corner of death.” There’s a Burger King, a McDonald’s, Cameron’s Seafood and Tyrone’s Chicken carry-out.
Flowers, the executive director of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance, reads off the names, and he sighs.
“This is the problem,” Flowers says.
“If you want to take your family to dinner in this neighborhood, you’ve got a choice of McDonald’s, Burger King or any corner store nearby,” he says. “It does not create a pretty picture overall.”
Immense challenges face Park Heights and Flowers, who took over the health alliance in July 2009. Besides unemployment and poverty, the neighborhood has profound health problems: high rates of obesity, diabetes and stroke.
Flowers, 39, believes that those statistics would improve if Park Heights residents could easily buy better food. He is offended by the lack of produce stores in this community, especially when neighborhoods just a few miles away have many good shops and restaurants.
“Baltimore is a major port city,” Flowers says. “It has some of the best restaurants in the country, right at the Inner Harbor — a 10-minute train ride.”
So what brought Flowers, an Alabama native who lives in Washington, to Park Heights?
“I’ve come here to save the world,” he says with a smile.
It’s a big job, and Park Heights presents big challenges.
“Every school here is a Title I school,” a designation that provides federal aid for poor pupils, Flowers says. “The murder rate is off-the-chain.”
And the neighborhood’s health statistics are dreadful. In Park Heights, life expectancy is 67 years compared to an average of 71 years for the city as a whole and 79 for the nation.
A 2008 study conducted by the Baltimore City Health Department found that Park Heights residents are likelier to develop heart disease, stroke and diabetes than their counterparts in affluent neighborhoods.
Flowers says health disparities — the differences in the quality of health and health care for people across racial and income groups — have always been a problem in the black community, and it has worsened over time.
“Quite frankly, this is the most pressing civil rights issue of our time.”
Willie Antonio Flowers, was born in Elba, Ala., in 1971 and graduated from Troy University, in Troy, Ala., with a bachelor’s degree in English and political science. In 1994, he moved to Washington.
He met his wife, Kimberly, there. The couple moved to Baltimore, her hometown, and settled in Seton Hill until late 2005. The family now lives in Washington.
About 15 months ago, Flowers took over the alliance after the departure of the former executive director, who was indicted last summer on charges of stealing more than $200,000 of the nonprofit’s funds. Victor Frierson, 56, was charged in June and sentenced to 27 months in November.
Flowers commutes daily to the modern offices of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance, which employs 16 nurses, medical assistants and community organizers. Since 1996, Park Heights residents, the majority of them African-American, have come to 4511 Park Heights Avenue seeking medical and mental health help.
The nonprofit health alliance is funded through grants, with help from organizations including Carefirst, Cricket Communications, Maryland Hunger Solutions, Sinai Hospital, Bravo Health, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.
Carol Payne, of the nonprofit Place Matters, has worked with Flowers on community programs. She says he knows the challenges that face Park Heights residents and understands that a community health organization has to play a dual role.
“Willie knows the history and urgent needs of that community,” she said, “but more importantly, he knows that the alliance should provide more than physical healthcare. It should be an anchor in a community and provide mental wellness too.”
While he’s on the job, Flowers preaches the benefits of healthy eating all day long. Visitors to his spacious office find plastic containers full of white rice and green vegetables, evidence of his vegetarian diet.
His 4-year-old twin sons, Hudson and Harison, attend a Montessori pre-school in Baltimore where only vegetarian meals are served.
“Replace the coffee with green tea,” he urges a Starbucks-drinking visitor. “And cut out the smoking.”
He’s just as critical of staff members.
“Look at her,” he says when he spots an employee gripping a McDonald’s bag. “And she works here. How can you tell others to eat healthier when you don’t?”
In an effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhood, Flowers joined with Maryland Hunger Solutions to help organize the Park Heights Farmers’ Market.
“The farmers get a pretty good return or else they wouldn’t come back,” he said, adding that the farmers reach “a different constituency” in the low-income Park Heights area.
Public health researchers say that poverty is the most important factor in the quality of a neighborhood’s health. But among African-Americans, Flowers says, poor diet eclipses class.
“If you look at the black community, government employees with health benefits are dying of the same cancers as their cousins in lower-income areas,” he said. “That’s because they have the same habits. The only difference is you eat more of it when you make more money.”
“In Alabama, I grew up eating all that,” he said, referring to smoked ham and buttered yams. “There’s nothing wrong with greens. Just take the fatback out.”
To show his neighbors how to do that, the health alliance has begun inviting residents to healthy cooking programs. With his staff, Flowers also has created programs aimed at improving health: community gardens, Park Height’s first 5K race, Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
And he started a prayer group.
The prayer group, Flowers says, is important. “If there’s one thing this neighborhood needs, it’s prayer.”