Johns Hopkins Medicine and Sibley Memorial Hospital have supported innovative teams through the Ward Infinity accelerator program, a three-year-old initiative that improves community health in Washington, D.C.’s underinvested neighborhoods by inviting community members to develop solutions to ongoing challenges. Sibley Memorial Hospital considers dozens of applicants each year and five teams are selected to receive a $25,000 grant and innovation and entrepreneurship training.
Last year was the first time the program included a pitch-and-storytelling competition that offered additional funding opportunities. The competition was held in early December at WeWork in the Navy Yard area of Washington. The competition finale provides Ward Infinity teams the chance to win one of two $10,000 pitch awards or a $3,000 storytelling award, which is named after Jon Fortt, a CNBC journalist, Washington native and champion for social change.
“This enabled them to share their beautiful work and showcase their ingenuity,” says Veronica Vela, Dr.P.H., M.Eng., former director of community health design and innovation at Sibley Memorial Hospital. “They all described their solutions in impactful ways. We recognize that lack of funding can sometimes challenge the progress of these projects.”
When Ward Infinity pitch competition winner Talayah Jackson was preparing to present, she was a bundle of nerves. Jackson, vice chair of the board for the Medici Road community development company, says having her baby in tow made the competition more stressful.
“It was nerve-racking,” she says. “There was the thrill of the experience and our potential to win, mixed with being naturally nervous about presenting and being a new mom. I felt we did a good job, but I wasn’t expecting to win. The moment they called our names, I was elated!”
For Jackson and the Medici Road team, the prize money will enable additional research to help Greater Deanwood residents have equitable access to a range of food options that promote health.
“Even if you give people all the health care in the world, that doesn’t mean they’ll be healthier,” says Jackson. “We need to address the social determinants of health. The Ward Infinity program was an opportunity to tackle a problem that we know affects our neighbors’ lives and our own. The lack of grocery stores and lack of healthy food access funnels into dire health metrics for our community.”
Jackson says being a part of the Ward Infinity program helped her see that the solutions to her community’s challenges are within herself.
“The Ward Infinity program was a great springboard with funds, time and a structured approach,” she says. “I learned that everything we need to solve our issues we already have. We just need to put it into action.”
Jackson says she appreciated how much the Sibley Memorial team cared about the cohort’s experience as participants. “They went above and beyond,” says Jackson, who had access to mentors and cohort summits through the program. “They shaped sessions around what our teams thought would be best. There was lots of hospitality and kindness. I thought it was going to be us doing something for Sibley Memorial Hospital, but it was Sibley doing something for us.”
The community selected the competition winners. The finale had a limited in-person audience, and more than 130 people watched online. Judges included C. Anetta Arno, Ph.D., M.P.H, of the Washington health department, Amy Heymans of Mad*Pow, Vincent Keane of Unity Health Care, Alison Rein of Quantified Ventures, Sara Polon of Soupergirl, Candace Robinson of Capital Impact Partners and Kimberly Gayle of Washington Area Community Investment Fund. Ward 7 and 8 residents, who voted in-person or online, cast 55% of the vote.
“We wanted to take into account the needs of the communities we’re serving," says Vela. "So, after each team did their pitch, we put a link in the livestream and invited the residents to rate how well the projects addressed an urgent need in their community. Their input was vital and thoughtful. We wanted the community to choose what they believe would be best for them.”
Stacy Lucas, who won the storytelling award for Infinite Possibilities International, says she was honored to tell her team’s story. Infinite Possibilities International provides the community with programming to encourage youths and their parents to explore outdoor experiences.
“We want our community to participate in recreational activities that would help their health,” Lucas says. “We want to help lower our community’s blood pressure, diabetes and stress.”
Lucas says the Ward Infinity program provided consistent one-on-one feedback to help her team’s project grow.
“They were hands on and there every step of the way,” Lucas says. “I loved every minute of them challenging us. I’m so proud that we all stuck in there. Everybody has hectic lives, but we stayed committed. We learned a lot about ourselves. We’re all winners because we were able to take a problem and create so many beautiful solutions to it.”
For pitch competition winner De’Vante Speight, the additional prize money will help him pay his Wassup Té team for the work it has done during the past seven months on a documentary about sugar intake and daily diets. They also hope to use the money to create a trailer for the film.
“We want to see our documentary in every major festival in America and on all of the major film platforms,” Speight says. “We’re trying to connect gaps in communication for the health disparities that a lot of us face. We want our film to create a dialogue.”
For Fortt, a Ward Infinity advisory council member, listening to the teams’ stories and pitches was exhilarating.
“It was great for me to be a part of something that’s having a real on-the-ground impact in my hometown,” says Fortt. “As I listened to their stories and their pitches, I heard the rich instruction they had gotten from the program and how Ward Infinity helped crystalize their efforts.”
Alicia Wilson, J.D., vice president for economic development for The Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System, is considering expanding the Ward Infinity program to Baltimore.
“We saw that solutions for challenges come from experts with both lived experience and specialized knowledge of how to solve problems,” says Wilson, who attended the competition finale. “Many times, we don’t make space for innovation that comes from those experts. This program recognizes that brilliance and innovation are everywhere, and bringing the best minds to solve real problems is extremely attractive.”
Ward Infinity teams Healthy Home Pediatrics and Dynamic Solutions for the Aging also participated in the competition. Healthy Home Pediatrics supports families through house calls, telemedicine, care coordination and lactation services. Dynamic Solutions for the Aging is developing a home health care model that provides high quality care with livable wages that allow home health aides to feel inspired, valued and supported.