Thank you, Pittsburgh, for giving residents and visitors safer streets for walking, biking, and increased physical activity!
Last week, the Inside Track featured a profile written by our friends at Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities about Rosa Soto, who works on public health in Baldwin Park, Calif. This week, the organization shares the inspiring story of Sam Robinson, a survivor of end-stage renal disease whose strong faith inspires him to work to make his community a healthier place.
Sam Robinson is a thoughtful man, careful about his actions and sensitive to the needs of others. He lives to serve. So much so that he went into ministry - and community organizing. So after two years of building relationships and engaging residents around healthy eating and active living in a low-income neighborhood of Columbia, Mo., he was surprised when residents pushed back. Publicly.
“I felt like we understood the needs of the community,” said Sam, director of Healthy Community Initiatives for PedNet Coalition, the lead agency for the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant in Columbia. Sam went on a local radio station with PedNet’s founder and executive director, Ian Thomas, to talk about their HKHC work. People called in with concern. “Our African American champions and gatekeepers were not happy with us as an organization. We were surprised by that. They essentially said, ‘We don’t appreciate the fact that you have this money and our members are living in poverty.’” Sam noted that although he has lived in Columbia for 12 years, he’s still considered an outsider. “So part of that public dialogue was, ‘Who are you to come in and tell us what we need.’”
Even though that was never PedNet’s intention.
In the early stages of HKHC, Sam led a community advisory board. Together with Ian they worked to establish trusted relationships with the community and prove their desire to work collaboratively. But a history of short-term and one-sided engagement isn’t easily forgotten. “I heard the community’s cry saying, ‘We are tired of organizations coming into our communities, receiving research dollars, and we do not benefit.’ I took that to heart,” he said. And while Sam wishes they had come to him personally with their concerns, he didn’t get angry. “I handled that by praying and by going back to the drawing board to ensure that we were in the community for the right reasons.”
Honoring the Past
Part of what draws Sam to this work is his own background. “I’ve been through a lot in my life, growing up in poverty and struggling with serious health challenges.” Sam was raised in a suburb of St. Louis with a father who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. His mother died when he was 5. He had to grow up fast and life wasn’t easy but he is grateful for many things. “Although I lived in poverty, I didn’t feel like I did. I went to the same grade school and was exposed through sports and other activities to a world outside of my SES (socioeconomic status) background. My heart really goes out to kids who don’t have a stable background.”
Sam worked a series of low-wage jobs while trying to figure out his future when he was diagnosed with end- stage renal disease at the age of 20. “It was all of a sudden,” he said. “I went to the doctor and my blood pressure was at stroke level. I was immediately placed on dialysis.” He took treatments three to four times daily at home for three years until he was able to go to a dialysis center. “I turned the corner when that happened,” he said. “I started focusing on goals and seeing that I didn’t want to work dead-end jobs for the rest of my life.” He moved to Jefferson City, Mo., and enrolled in Lincoln University. The disease made it difficult to keep up with the coursework, especially during his long-awaited kidney transplant. But Sam finished an associate’s degree in computer information systems and moved to Columbia where he believed opportunities would come. “The transplant freed me up,” he said. “It’s a treatment, not a cure, so I have come to terms with that. I am focused on living my life day to day. The kidney could be rejected by my body, but I thank God for the technology and the doctors and all He allowed me to go through to have a productive life and a career. I trust and believe He has a plan for my life.”
Building the Future
His journey has taken twists and turns but as far as Sam is concerned, everything has been leading to this job. Sam worked in a resident care facility for abused and neglected children, where he learned to connect with kids who struggle with trust and authority. As a customer service representative for a textbook organization, he learned to communicate with people from all walks of life and create efficient systems. As a school transportation dispatcher, he gained insight into the school system and integration of transportation modes. While working as a family advocate for a community-based organization, he helped low-income people with job readiness, utility assistance and more. But most importantly, Sam says, he became an ordained minister and serves as director of Christian Education at his church.
“My career and my vocation as a minister are integrated. All the stuff I learn in ministry allows me to effectively engage with residents,” he says. “They see me Monday through Friday AND Sunday. They can call me in the evenings. I often say, ‘People are not concerned with how much you know unless they know how much you care,’ and I really have a heart for God’s people.”
One of Sam’s most rewarding experiences so far has been a campaign to save Columbia’s public transit service. “We were facing a dismantling of our bus system,” said Sam, who was worried about the impact on residents who rely on public transportation, like a single mother who’s trying to take classes at night. “To mount a campaign that was able to sustain the services at least for a year…that’s dear to my heart.” Subsequently, the mayor appointed Sam as a community representative to the Transit System Task Force, which seeks to quadruple ridership. Sam is also involved in developing youth leaders, revitalizing neighborhood associations and managing the day-to-day operations of their HKHC action teams. On top of that, he’s taking courses to become a certified community development specialist.
Things have come a long way since that radio show. In fact, after leading a workshop on civic involvement and strategic planning, one lifelong resident spoke directly to Sam for the first time. She looked him in the eye and said, “I LOVE what Sam Robinson is doing, and I am going to tell everyone about Sam Robinson.” Sam paused. “And that made me really feel good because at the end of the day, I need to make sure everything we’re doing is sensitive to the needs of our community members.”