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Inclusive wellness center is an oasis for a neighborhood left behind

In the heart of one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, parents hoped for a new preschool. Instead they got much more. The Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-being is a preschool, urban farm, dental office and mental health care center, all in one. William Brangham visits to see how it’s supporting the community.

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    After years of neglect, parents in one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods hoped that a new preschool would be built in their community. Instead, they got much more.

    William Brangham recently visited there, and he is back again with this report.

    It's part of our weekly series Making the Grade.


    Fish swim in giant tanks. Collard greens grow in abundance in a massive greenhouse. Down the hall, there's a dentist's office, as well as a mental health center. And at the other end of the building, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds run around like mad.

    Some might say it's an unusual mix here in the heart of one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, but not according to the woman who runs the place.

    LYDIA PRADO, Vice President, Mental Health Center of Denver: It's taking a new approach to community well-being.


    Dr. Lydia Prado is the driving force behind this place. It's called the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being.


    My initial conversations were with two folks who had — together, they have over 80 years of residence in this community.

    And just floated the idea, I want to take integrated care to the next level. I want to think comprehensively about health. I want to be able to talk about mental health, and went to talk to them about it, and it's like, what do you think? And they're like, oh.

    But, you know, they were very honest about it. There are going to be challenges, but if anybody's going to give it a shot — and we're behind you.


    For Prado, building partnerships early on was key. Heidi Heissenbuttel came on board early, bringing a branch of her Sewall Child Development Center to the new campus.

    Sewall's been a pioneer in what's known as inclusive education, teaching children with special needs — that is, kids with autism or those with emotional or behavioral issues — and putting them in classrooms with their more typically developing peers.

    Heissenbuttel says the evidence is clear that this approach works for all kids.

  • HEIDI HEISSENBUTTEL, CEO, Sewall Child Development Center:

    They learn to expect that every child learns differently, and they go on to their elementary classrooms, and they become advocates for kids who learn differently. And they will tell teachers, you need to work with that child, or why can't he participate on the playground, or we want him in our group.


    We observed three classrooms. Here, the Tigers have circle time. Then they moved on to center time, an hour when the children get to pick what they want to do, as teachers float through the classroom facilitating vocabulary-building and individual lessons.

    One-third of the children here have some special need, some with diagnosed developmental problems. Plus, 40 percent of the kids here suffer from what's known as toxic stress.


    Toxic stress is the result of poverty, abuse and neglect, domestic violence, just life's circumstances, when you — when a family lives under stress.

    And what the best treatment, for children to have loving, stable relationships in their lives.


    Arnesha Poke's son Adrian attends the pre-K, and she says this inclusive approach is important to her.

  • ARNESHA POKE, Parent:

    Instead of, like, separating the kids off and stuff, they need to all be together, so they can learn each other and learn each other's emotional ways, and stuff like that.


    In the community conversation, it was extremely important, this idea of inclusivity, because it was — it's parallel to a community's desire to be included and inclusive.

    There's a lot of experience of being separated out.


    I thought she would kind of fall in with the rest of the kids and just do — not have any problems, issues at all.


    Diane Greenberg and her daughter Karai used to live in a homeless shelter. She says this preschool has been life-changing.


    I love this place because it helps me understand how to deal with that. It helps me understand how to help her.


    The staff-to-child ratio here is one to five, whereas the state only mandates a 1-10 ratio.

    TRINA POKE, Teacher, Sewall at Dahlia: I think we all respect each other and we all do like each other enough.


    Teachers Trina Poke and Christine Krall.


    We just kind of get so used to each other that we do just tend to feed off of each other like that.

    CHRISTINE KRALL, Director, Sewall at Dahlia: I especially feel sometimes that it's not easy to see what I'm doing. And that's when I will share, like, the rationale and things like that during team meetings, so it doesn't look like I'm just playing, because there is a method to the madness.


    Some of the madness is designed to calm children down who may be having a tough time.

    Heather Luehers is a social worker.

    HEATHER LUEHERS, Social Worker, Sewall at Dahlia: When kids can't pay attention to parents, when they are so dysregulated, they have problems, because they move inside themselves, and they just run around the classroom.

    And I think, in some of our classrooms, you see that. So, what I'm doing with this child is saying, I'm the adult, I'm in charge, you don't need to be in charge, because these kids that need to be in charge with parents that are absent don't do well.


    A full-day preschool program with all this staff doesn't come cheap. For a typically developing child, it's $252 a week. For a child with special needs who requires more staffing, it's $387.

    And 90 percent of the families in this neighborhood need financial help. Many pay based on what they can afford. But research shows the return on that investment is high. Every $1 spent on early education returns $13 in savings down the road.

    In addition to being one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver, this area is also what's called a food desert. What that means is, according to the USDA, is that, if you live in a big city, you don't have a good grocery store within about a mile of your house. This neighborhood, it's over two miles to a good grocery store. That's about a 45-minute walk.

    Even worse, this is what's known as a food swamp, where all that's available what's available is fast food and the generally poor nutrition that comes with it.

    That's where those fish and collard greens come in. Tilapia and catfish were the fish the community said they want. And collard greens and Swiss chard were the top choices for leafy greens.

  • JENNA SMITH, Manager, Colorado Aquaponics:

    And so you will see the roots just hang down into the water, and they can just soak it up as they need it.



    Jenna Smith runs this aquaponics greenhouse, which uses one continuous loop of recycled, cleaned water for the entire operation.


    Healthy food is foundational to overall health and well-being. It's a very important component to having — helping kids to grow up, pay attention in class, you know, be strong and active. And what better way to do that than to have it right on site?


    Where these greens now grow used to be the site of the country's largest African-American-owned mall. But the businesses went bankrupt, and the lot was abandoned for decades.

    Longtime resident and urban farmer Beverly Grant talked to us in the huge kitchen at Dahlia, a space where students sort lettuce for food boxes they take home, and where community members can take cooking classes.

  • BEVERLY GRANT, Mo’ Betta Green Marketplace:

    We have shifted from food desert to food oasis.


    Grant runs her own traveling farm stand, and she met Lydia Prado early in the planning stages.


    The blessing is that Dr. Prado had amazing listening ears and a compassionate heart. And when she heard the stories of people like me and others, she was like, hmm, we could probably do something about that. You get that little nod from her, consider that done.


    As Grant likes to say, from seed to stomach.

    During our visit, preschoolers were learning that very lesson, planting seedlings that will later be transplanted into their urban farm, and could very likely end up on their own kitchen tables.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Denver, Colorado.

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