AUSTIN — A hospital campus shut down in the ’80s may find new life as a community health hub for West Siders.
Some of the buildings that were once St. Anne’s Hospital are already in use by Bethel New Life, a senior housing and social service organization that bought the campus.
Bethel New Life is now working with other community organizations to turn the former hospital facilities into an urban farm and wellness hub. The buildings have been unused for decades and sit on the 9-acre campus at 1150 N. Lamon Ave.
The Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub would bring together health, food, career and education resources so people can have a place with “all the factors that are vital to helping people get to a thriving lifestyle,” said Sharif Walker, executive director of Bethel New Life.
“We’ve built generations of families in low-income communities that have been in survival mode. But the American dream is really one of thriving families,” Walker said.
The need for wellness resources is demonstrated by the striking life expectancy gap between people living on the West Side versus those living Downtown, Walker said.
In parts of the West Side, residents are expected to live to an average age of 69 years old, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University report. The life expectancy of people living in The Loop is 16 years longer: 85.
The farm and wellness hub is a key project of the Austin Eats Initiative, a collaborative effort of local groups led by Austin Coming Together to create a neighborhood ecosystem where food and health resources are abundant.
“It’s not just for survival,” said Ethan Ramsay, lead organizer for Austin Coming Together. “We want food to help build community wealth.”
The first phase of developing the hub would build an urban farm in partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program. Thirteen raised beds have already been built on the campus, which will allow residents to grow some of their own food and learn about healthy eating and horticultural practices, Walker said.
“We’re using that not only to work with young people … to start exploring horticulture and everything that’s needed to maintain a garden, but we’re also working with seniors,” Walker said.
Bethel New Life has 210 senior living units on the campus, so the garden has horticultural therapy programs to “give them the opportunity to exercise their minds while they exercise their bodies in the farm,” Walker said.
By bringing young people and neighborhood elders together, the farm also supports the emotional and relational health of the community, Ramsay said. Developing intergenerational relationships allows “youth to build community and have a safe space, and it’s very focused on food and agriculture,” Ramsay said.
A building once used for the former hospital’s laundry would become a horticulture center with a demonstration kitchen and classrooms to educate community members on wellness and healthy eating, Walker said.
The horticulture center will have youth programs to create a pipeline for young people to enter careers in health care, medicine and nutrition, Walker said. Bethel New Life is partnering with organizations to bring youth programs to create career pathways, like a nutrition program from the University of Illinois Extension, a STEM program from Project Exploration and after-school programs from I Care Ministries.
“If they have some of these pathways and understand what’s available to them, they have the ability to expand their careers in places that are going to help them sustain above a surviving wage job,” Walker said.
Bethel New Life plans to turn other vacant hospital buildings on the campus into a community café and fitness center. Walker envisions the Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub having an outdoor gathering space with a stage, a nature play garden for kids and a handicap-accessible walking path for exercise.
Bethel New Life is working with partners to organize a capital campaign to fund the planned wellness center. While raising money for the project, the group is building on some of the wellness programs already offered there, Walker said.
“There are so many things you can do around food access and food education,” Ramsay said. “We want to keep building on those to be able to show people what we can do.”
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