Joetta Harris, 57, can tightly summarize her typical day: “Busy, always busy.”

To be fair, many of us would answer that way these days.

But for Harris, it rings painfully true. Her life has been compounded by problems that have pulled her every which way.

She divorced some time ago, living as a single mother of two sons. Her kids are now grown, but life never got easier.

In February 2017, she found herself working two jobs to pay the bills, including a rent payment that had increased.

She struggled to put food on the table. Her blood pressure hit 200/70. She became borderline diabetic.

“I was working a full-time job and a part-time job,” Harris said. “In home care and at a senior facility. But I was about to lose the apartment.”

As worries compounded, she found little time to manage her health.

She needed help.

A life-saving referral

Recognizing her need, Harris’ physician referred her to the Core Health program at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities. The 12-month program is free for Kent County adults diagnosed with diabetes, COPD, or heart failure.

Renee Kuiper, RN, care manager at Core Health, remembers her first meeting with Harris.

She teamed with Latecia Turner, a Core Health community health worker, to help Harris begin the rebuilding process.

“Latecia and I contacted Joetta and introduced her to the program and offered her the opportunity to participate,” Kuiper said. “She was struggling with financial pressures, food security, affordable housing and access to affordable medical care.”

Turner connected Harris to a wide variety of resources.

TrueNorth for heat and energy assistance. Inner City Christian Federation for help with housing. A community food club. Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women for professional help with jobs.

But most importantly, they helped her understand her health struggles.

“Joetta came into our program with very little education on how to manage her newly diagnosed chronic condition,” Turner said. “She was initially fearful of the unknown and what exactly was going on with her body. This fear created a great deal of stress for her.

“That’s a common barrier to managing health,” Turner said.

The program came when Harris needed it most.

“I was praying for help,” Harris said. “Core Health helped me so much. They came to my home to talk with me and they came back every month for two years.”

Forging partnerships

The Core Health team visits clients once a month to help them monitor health and wellness issues.

They help people develop goals, set by themselves and their doctors. They learn ways to improve their health and quality of life.

“My first goal was to lower my blood pressure,” Harris said. “I learned about making changes in my diet, eating more fruits, controlling portions and not to eat processed foods. I was a nibbler, a late night eater. And I learned not to do that.”

As she made changes, she began to see results.

She lost a few pounds. And it felt good.

She began to look for opportunities to walk more, even if it didn’t come easy.

Losing her battle with high rent, Harris moved in with a cousin. It helped her save money and she also got a workout climbing stairs to her new third-floor dwelling.

“I tried a gym, although finding the time was still a challenge,” she said. “When I needed better gym shoes to wear, the nurse and community health worker helped me find shoes with a good fit for my flat feet.”

Harris found a true partner in Turner.

“Walking alone isn’t very motivating,” Harris said. “But walking with a friend is encouraging. I really felt like Renee and Latecia were in my corner.”

Turner remembers walking alongside Harris as they discussed ways to tackle the barriers to progress. They would consult with Kuiper, too.

“Every week, Renee and I would talk about ways to combine our efforts in order to be more effective in helping Joetta,” Turner said. “At one point, we assisted her financially through our client assistant funds. That was a true blessing for Joetta. It allowed her to hang on to hope.”

As hard as it sometimes was to find time to exercise, Harris enjoyed walking at every chance.

She worked up to 4 miles.

She continued to zero in on nutrition to control her blood sugar.

A turn for the better

This year, Harris began to see real improvements in her life circumstances and in her health.

She relocated to new housing, finally securing a place of her own. She got a new job and qualified for better health insurance.

An improved budget allowed for healthier food purchases.

She joined a gym and began walking at least three times a week.

She also strengthened her connections to family and church, finding support to help her stay on track with her goals.

“As her community health worker, I was determined to see Joetta accomplish her goals,” Turner said. “And so when there were times that she could not be present for our appointments due to real life barriers, I never gave up on her.

“I am proud to say that the hard, diligent work Renee and I provided—it paid off,” Turner said

By the time Harris’ participation in the Core Health Program drew to a close in April 2019, she had gotten her blood pressure to a healthy 122/68.

Her quality of life now?

“Excellent,” Harris said.

She has even found time in her busy life to dream again.

“Many years ago, I taught in Head Start and I was a paraprofessional in Grand Rapids Public Schools,” Harris said. “I really enjoyed working with kids. And now I’m wondering about going back to that. I would have to get certified, but it’s a dream.”

She said she is grateful for the strength she has found in her faith, particularly as she seeks to build her path forward.

And she will always be grateful for the help she received from her Core Health nurse, Renee Kuiper, and her community health worker, Latecia Turner.

“They made me feel like I have some control over my life again,” she said.