Starsky Wilson

Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson

With record numbers of people out of work in St. Louis due to the pandemic – the St. Louis Fed reports April 2020 unemployment in the St. Louis region at 11.6% compared to 3.3% in April 2019 – the region will be going through an “economic restructuring” for the next few years, said Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation.

“This is going to require an actual revisioning of who we understand ourselves to be as a community,” Wilson said.

The foundation believes the health and social impacts of this process are being underestimated, Wilson said. The funding for economic recovery is largely going to come through the federal government, which means the community will need advocacy organizations to lift up their voices in discussions about the allocation of public resources, he said. 

This is why the Deaconess Foundation is doubling down on supporting advocacy organizations.

“We’re going to be launching in June a cohort of six black-led organizations that we have identified as critical to our just recovery from COVID-19,” Starsky said. “And we will be investing in those organizations for the next two years to assure that they are well-positioned to weather the economic storm that COVID-19 has created so that they can be active partners in framing a just recovery.” 

The six organizations are: Action St. Louis, Dutchtown South Community Corporation, Forward Through Ferguson, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council (EHOC), the Organization For Black Struggle, and United Congregations of Metro East. 

The foundation will award $350,000 in grants to these groups over two years, as well as provide professional development and peer coaching for all the executive directors and key staff. 

The initiative comes on the heels of the foundation’s announcement in April to award $2.2 million in grants to more than 50 black-led organizations working in COVID-19 relief and recovery in the St. Louis region. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation contributed $1 million to this effort. 

Just months before the pandemic hit the region, the Deaconess Foundation was one of the primary funders in successfully wiping out $12.9 million in medical debt of families living at or below the poverty line through the RIP Medical Debt program.

Honoring this incredible work, the Deaconess Foundation will receive the 2020 Health Advocacy Organization of the Year Award, as part of the 20th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards virtual event on Thursday, July 9.

“Deaconess Foundation envisions a community that values the health and well-being of all children and gives priority attention to the most vulnerable,” according to the foundation’s website. “This community only thrives if the allocation of power and distribution of resources, benefits, opportunities and burdens are not predictable by, nor predicated on race.”

The foundation’s roots go back to 1889, when the Evangelical Deaconess Society of St. Louis was established, and the first Deaconess Sisters consecrated. In the following decades, the sisters established a hospital and a nursing school. However, in 1997 the Deaconess Incarnate Word Health system was sold, and in 1998 Deaconess began grantmaking with a focus on St. Louis children in poverty. 

In St. Louis city, black children are four times as likely as white children to live in households with income below the poverty level, 44% compared to 11.8%, according to the city’s Equity Indicators

“Kids don’t grow up in programs,” Wilson said. “They don’t grow up in schools. They grow up in families, and so we have to impact the things that are impacting families.”

The foundation recognizes that healthcare costs pose a “remarkable drag” for any family, but especially those living in poverty. 

“Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country,” Wilson said. “So, when we talk about making sure that those families have economic mobility, have access to comprehensive healthcare, we come to this intersection that millions of Americans find themselves at — which is medical debt that leads them to debt collectors.”

Rev. Traci Blackmon, senior pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ and UCC associate general minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries, came to the foundation with the idea of participating in RIP Medical Debt, and the foundation jumped on board. Donors from UCC came up with over $60,000, and the Deaconess Foundation donated $40,000. With that $100,000 donation, they purchased $12.9 million in medical debt of families living at or below the poverty line through the RIP Medical Debt program.

In February, 11,108 St. Louis city and county families in 78 local ZIP codes received envelopes informing them of their medical debt cancelation. While this is a one-time help for families, the foundation understands that it does not get at the heart of the problem, Wilson said.

“We wouldn’t have to do this had we expanded Medicaid,” Wilson said. 

The foundation partnered with several advocacy organizations to gather signatures for a petition to expand Medicaid in Missouri, which will be on the August 4 ballot.

“All but 13 states have expanded Medicaid,” he said. “This is crippling people in our community. We need to expand Medicaid. Charity is not going to resolve it.” 

The 20th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards will be celebrated online as a free virtual event on Thursday, July 9. For additional details on how to participate, please

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