How do you spell passion? In Grand Rapids, it's S-H-A-N-N-O-N-W-I-L-S-O-N. As executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, Shannon is working to bridge the gaps in available health care and the knowledge base of healthy lifestyles among minorities through education, research, and advocacy.
"Our mission is to improve the health and well being of African Americans while working to reduce disparities in health and the health system in our community," she said.
This fall, GRAAHI is paying special attention to teens. The Student Advisory Academy will emphasize the need to address healthy lifestyles at a young age to prevent future complications in life. Approximately twenty-five students will be chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the online courses and activities.
"We need to start engraining this in our children at a young age, so they can see the totality of health," Shannon said, "instead of trying to preach it to them as adults."
Students will choose a problem or topic, such as hypertension, and will be asked to come up with a solution based on lessons, group activities, and field trips in and around the community. "We are really excited, Shannon said. "This will give us insight into how children view (health) problems."
The afterschool, weekend, and summer program will open students' eyes to healthful ways of living and hopefully encourage them toward careers in the sciences, Shannon said.
The recently launched twelve-week "Real Women. Real Change" initiative is a program for women ages forty to seventy. Shannon said the study covers everything from healthy weight, nutritious foods, mental health, and financial health to the largest diseases that affect African-American populations, such as cardiovascular diseases.
"As part of the initiative," Shannon said, "we are tracking weight, blood pressure, and teaching women how to take their own blood pressure and weight, and track their eating."
According to GRAAHI: "Women of color have much higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and certain forms of cancer. While white women are more likely to have breast cancer, black women have higher mortality rates from breast cancer. Every year, for example, 1,722 African American women die from breast cancer—an average of five African American women per day."
Shannon and her team are working at the local, state, and legislative levels on behalf of the local African-American constituency. As a piece of GRAAHI’s advocacy arm, Shannon works to motivate others to recognize the need for fair and balanced health care, and speak up to obtain it. "By promoting health care parity or equality, GRAAHI will have an impact on the health disparities that currently exist for African Americans who live in this community," stated GRAAHI at a recent media event.
It has been Shannon's mission since her undergraduate and masters studies at Michigan State University to shine light on health matters affecting ethnic populations. Her resume touts her involvement with the Alliance for Health, where she was the assistant vice president, and Northrop Grumman, where she was the scientific project manager for Parents Matter. Shannon is one to dive in head first. And with her heart of gold, she is changing the lives and health-related circumstances of vulnerable populations in West Michigan.
Click here to learn more about GRAAHI and get involved!