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Gloria Jackson Bacon
Purpose Prize Winner 2007
Building healthy families to help poor children thrive.
After decades heading up a health clinic in Altgeld Gardens, an impoverished community of 3,500 in Chicago, Dr. Gloria Jackson Bacon decided that the children she saw as patients needed much more than traditional health care to succeed in life. So in 2004, at age 67, she founded Project 18. Moving outside the confines of a medical office, Jackson Bacon now works to build healthy families and communities that will help children thrive in all ways – emotionally, socially, physically and academically.
Project 18 teaches parents, individually and in groups, how to inspire and support their children and how to identify helpful resources in the community. Now in its third year, Project 18 has reached nearly 300 parents and has demonstrated positive change in children’s test scores and behavior and parents’ mental health. Once she has expanded the model locally, Jackson Bacon hopes to take Project 18 to communities nationwide.
In 1964, just two years out of medical school, Gloria Jackson went to Altgeld Gardens, an impoverished community on Chicago’s South Side, to work in a local clinic for what she thought would be several months. Five years later, she had become so engrossed in the patients’ unmet needs and so appalled by the lack of quality public health services that she left that facility and started a new medical clinic, handling thousands of patients a year for the next few decades. The Clinic at Algeld had a big impact on the community — when it opened in 1970, the infant mortality rate, to take just one telling statistic, was 50.2 per thousand. By 1990, it had dropped to 9.2.
Nearly 30 years later, in 1997, on the completion of a modern state-of-the-art facility, Jackson Bacon retired as Medical Director, continuing as a consultant until 2001. Satisfied that the clinic would continue to do critical work, she was also eager to do more than traditional health care to help the children she cared for succeed in life. “I saw that the medicine that people came to the doctor for was only a little piece of the care they needed,” Jackson Bacon recalls. “They had so many other needs.”
In 2004, at age 67, Jackson Bacon founded Project 18, a long-term effort to change the lives of low-income children from birth to age 18 by equipping their parents with the motivation and skills to inspire and guide their children to achieve success – emotionally, socially, physically, and academically.
“Unless you’re going to take a child from his parents, you’ve got to train parents because they’re the ones who create a lot of the child’s environment,” Jackson Bacon says. “We’ve tried to come up with positive influences that could allow children to create goals for themselves and allow parents to be able to support them.”
Driving through Altgeld Gardens today, it is hard to imagine a more challenging environment in which to raise a child. There is little commercial development anywhere in sight. The projects are flanked on three sides by landfills, manufacturing plants and long-closed steel mills. On the east side, an interstate expressway cuts off the community from the rest of the city. Originally built in 1945, about half of its 1,500 two-story row house units are now shuttered, the residents relocated while the housing authority tears down the dilapidated structures to build modest new homes.
Every serious risk factor that clusters in inner-city communities can be found here: poverty, unemployment, gangs, and easy access to guns and drugs. Altgeld’s households are often headed by young single mothers, overwhelmed with day-to-day stresses, frustrated and depressed about their own inadequacies and failed aspirations. The community center, a hub of activity for the neighborhood’s children 20 years ago, is now a hangout for gangs and drug dealers.
Yet it is here that Jackson Bacon sees hope. The Project 18 banner in their tiny office proclaims: “Imagine every child born today in our inner cities reaching age 18 free of alcohol and drugs, free of gang and criminal justice involvement, free of the burden of early parenthood-and raised in effective, caring families, with clear, attainable goals in life, a high school diploma and the commensurate knowledge. Free and 18.”
Jackson Bacon and her co-founder, Michael Edwards, who grew up in Altgeld Gardens and left to get his Ed.D. in education at Harvard, recognize that even the most impoverished neighborhoods include families that be transformed to provide cognitive, emotional and social enrichment to their children, families that can facilitate school readiness, good behavior, and academic success.
In 2004, they set out to prove it.
Over the past three years, Project 18 staff has conducted small interactive parent training groups with nearly 300 parents. In the groups, experts work with parents to decrease the negative behaviors and emotions that they demonstrate in their interactions with their children and to encourage positive behaviors and emotions that help facilitate supportive, parent-child relationships. Parents also are taught how to give and receive social support and how to identify sources of support in the community. Children do not attend any of the group sessions.
Initial data is encouraging, showing statistically significant positive change in children’s standardized test scores and behavior and parents’ mental health.
“I have seen parents and children change dramatically,” explains Edwards, who conducts the weekly interactive parent training sessions for Project 18.
Edwards tells of a sixth grade boy who was angry, silent and unmotivated. This year the child received a full academic scholarship to a highly regarded parochial boys’ high school in Chicago. And Edwards tells of an angry and depressed mother who fought with most everyone. She has been nonconfrontational for the past two years and is setting a much more positive example for her family.
Sisters Brenda and Erica Nute tell their own stories about parenting teenage children who weren’t doing well in school. “Project 18 helped me communicate with my child more,” Brenda says. “Instead of punishing her, I would talk with her, and now she’s doing much better,” she adds.
Erica says her daughter used to shut down and give up, but she turned things around this past year. Now she’s entering high school with great prospects of being successful.
“The program taught me how to encourage her and not judge her and that seemed to really help her open up to me,” Erica says.
The Roots of Motivation
Growing up in New Orleans, Jackson Bacon prides herself on her family’s history and traditions. But rather than keeping her detached from those less privileged, the support and encouragement she received as a child fueled her determination to provide inner-city children with similar entitlements.
“My success is related to the fact that my parents believed in me and set goals for me,” Jackson Bacon says. “Many of our children don’t have that today, and that’s what I’m trying to put back into the community,” she adds.
As for her age, Jackson Bacon says only this: “I’ve had the advantage of time and experience, and the more you learn, the more you can do.”