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The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts

October 12, 2014 - Worcester T&G - One on One: Janice B. Yost
One on One: Janice B. Yost, President & CEO of The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts

Worcester Telegram & Gazette

In 1999, Janice B. Yost moved from South Carolina to lead The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. The grantmaking foundation, located at 446 Main St., has since grown to five employees, and still emphasizes funding programs that directly benefit the region's vulnerable population. She received her doctorate in speech education at the University of Georgia in 1977. She went on to become a professor and associate chancellor for university relations at the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg, and later served as the president of the Mary Black Foundation, a South Carolina grantmaking foundation, before coming to Worcester. 

What is the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts' overall goal? 

"To improve the health of vulnerable populations in Central Massachusetts. We make grants to nonprofit organizations that are serving these individuals. For example, in 2007, there was the Home Again Project. Some area nonprofits led by Community Healthlink came to us and said that there is a new and better way to deal with homeless adults than what was being done in Worcester. The PIP (People in Peril) shelter was down on South Main Street for many years, and it was a real source of concern for the community. What it meant was that people were allowed to come in at the nighttime to get a cot and got breakfast in the morning. For years, people were trying to live that way; imagine a life like that. Many had mental illnesses, many had become addicted to substances. It becomes difficult to care for yourself in that environment. Obviously, their health suffers. They are exposed to the weather and violence, they're living in a tough environment. Parts of the country had developed something called housing first. You put someone in housing rather than in a shelter. It was documented that it's cheaper to put someone in an apartment, about $10,000 a year cheaper, to house people rather than shelter them. What Home Again did here, they wanted to try housing first. By 2011, they were able to put this community in such a place that the shelter was able to be closed. They took the top 122 frequent shelter users and housed them. That took out this overwhelming source of people that needed to be sheltered. They didn't have to be sober first, they didn't have to earn anything. They were housed. How do you get sober in that kind of environment, if you are addicted? You just don't. This housing first approach was very successful. It wasn't without controversy, there were a lot of people who thought that you couldn't house people who were mentally ill. They had access to health care, it was a huge accomplishment." 

What would you say is the most common health issue the homeless face? 

"Mental health is the core. That is a good bit of the adult chronic homeless. For the families, it's poverty. Mental illness is really the weakest component of our health care delivery system. In recent times, it's gotten a lot of interest, but it's still the weakest link in making our population healthy. The providers are typically underpaid compared to their peers, and that creates an access barrier. It's an area that is getting more attention but it's got a long way to go." 

In your years with the foundation, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment? 

"There's no way I could pick just one thing or one grant. What I would say is that our grantees have been able to make significant impact by testing something and proving that it works with serious evaluation and impacting the future by changing public policy so people can have a new way of doing things. One of our most exciting ventures was an effort called Together for Kids. Massachusetts had the eighth-highest rate of expulsion of kids from preschools. The reason was that the kids had challenging behaviors, so the daycares would throw them out. The kid wouldn't enter school ready to learn. It was a serious issue that was brought to us and we said, let us figure out how to address that issue. Together for Kids worked with Community Healthlink, they went into these preschools and worked with the teachers, they rearranged the classrooms a bit. The main thing they did was working with teachers and parents around consistently managing the child's behavior. With 30 hours, on average, of this consultation, they were able to make a dramatic statistically significant difference in the kids behavior and therefore his performance. They tested it and it was sustained and now the state funds that across Massachusetts, even during the recession. The state has put some $8 million into the program. That's huge. Simple things have a profound impact." 

— Compiled by correspondent Joshua Lyford