Tiffany Loper took stock of her life: At age 22, she was a single mom working a second-shift factory job and living with her dad.

She desperately needed to find a way for her hard work to result in something more for herself and her two children.

Fast-forward about 14 months and she had secured a promising full-time job and applied for a mortgage. None of it was easy, Tiffany acknowledged, “but I really wanted to change my life. I knew if I didn’t find an opportunity to push myself it would never happen.”

Loper is Exhibit A for how the health of a community and its people involves a whole lot more than a daily multi-vitamin and occasional visit to an urgent care center.

In fact, “85 percent of a person’s health is determined by things other than walking into a doctor’s office,” said Jeremy Moore, director of community health innovations for Spectrum Health Healthier Communities. “Delivery of actual health care services is just a small part. Affordable and healthy housing are community health issues. Economics is a community health issue. So is employment.”

Moore’s work on community health has earned him a Culture of Health Leaders fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In addition, the foundation designated Grand Rapids, Michigan, as an Invest Health city.

Both initiatives focus on leveraging partnerships and dollars to create and bolster projects that will positively impact the community’s health. The overriding goal is to find ways to mitigate health disparities by putting resources into target areas, advocating for those who live and work there and supporting the work they are doing.

“Most people who are in poverty work hard, just like Tiffany, but they don’t get the opportunities that will put them on a better path,” Moore said.

For Loper, that “better path” came in the form of certification as a medical coder, earned after attending classes at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, a nonprofit supported by Spectrum Health and other organizations.

For nine months, four days a week, six hours a day, Loper attended classes. Most of that time, she also continued to work her factory job, squeezing in homework and time with her children whenever she could.

“I knew this was a career I could get into without lots of student loans,” said Loper, who will celebrate her third anniversary as a certified professional coder for Spectrum Health this summer. “Along with my children, this has been the greatest blessing of my life.”

She boosted her earnings by about 75 percent, improved her opportunity for advancement and can work from home most days.

“But more than that, I gained respect. I know how to present myself,” she said. “I have confidence. And when I’m ready to move forward, I know I will have full support to do so.”

Hearing Loper tell her story brings a smile to the face of Jamon Alexander, who oversees the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology’s adult training programs. In addition to medical coding, the center offers medical billing and pharmacy technician classes.

“No one gave Tiffany the resilience, determination and perseverance she needed to get through. She had that already,” Alexander said. “What she needed was support, flexibility from WMCAT, being part of a community and reminders to remain future-oriented.”

In addition to a career path, instructors offer their students power skills, like how to interview for a job and network with prospective employers. Loper’s instructor also scheduled her tests on Mondays, understanding that she needed weekends to study.

After Loper finished her coursework, she completed a 250-hour externship with Spectrum Health. Other organizations that sponsor students include Meijer and Mercy Health.

“It’s like a six-week interview,” Alexander explained.

Loper’s interview led to a full-time job with Spectrum Health, which helped her purchase a reliable car and buy a house. And that’s not all.

“I eat healthier foods now because I can afford them. I have money to get groceries and cook my own food. Now I have options, I feel like I have something to fall back on,” she said.

Clearly, Loper’s career advancements have affected her health—and the health of the community.

“Her hard work is now working for her and this means she can shape her own health future,” Moore said. “The health of our communities depends on finding ways to incentivize hard-working people, not make it harder for them.”

“Economics is a community health issue,” he added. “Research shows that the poorer you are, the worse your health is likely to be. And the opposite is true, too. The richer you are, the better your health is likely to be.”

The Invest Health initiative in Grand Rapids, one of 50 across the country, is working to more clearly demonstrate how housing, economic security, food security, infant mortality and other factors affect community health.

The work in Grand Rapids includes about 30 organizations and is primarily focused on one zip code: 49507. Partners include the City of Grand RapidsKent County Health DepartmentThe SOURCE, LINC UP and Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

Contributions from Spectrum Health, along with in-kind support from partners, have resulted in more than $10 million in grants and tax credits to improve the target community. They include:

  • $8.5 million in low-income tax credits from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to create new and affordable housing in the target area
  • $320,000 for a feasibility study to look at changes in insurance costs when asthma triggers are removed from homes
  • $750,000 in grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to increase employment in focus areas and support the city’s efforts to hire locally
  • $500,000 in grants to support affordable housing projects and connect residents with construction jobs
  • $500,000 per year in capital from Start Garden to open 10 new businesses a year in historically segregated parts of Grand Rapids

These initiatives have the entire Spectrum Health Healthier Communities team thinking in more creative and innovative ways about their work with vulnerable populations.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that hospital systems that figure out how to best use their full footprint to make communities healthier will be the most competitive and successful in the future,” said Ken Fawcett, vice president of Healthier Communities.

Loper, too, is thinking in ways she hadn’t anticipated a handful of years ago.

“In five or six years, I’d like to be a manager,” she said. “I feel I can do it. Nothing is going to hold me back.”