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Leaders pitch a wellness campus in south OKC

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Ward 4 Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White proposes turning aspects of the Souther Oaks Park and Community Center, next to Parmalee Elementary School, into a Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus.  Pete White, shown near a baseball backstop situated in the southern section of the property, near Lightning Creek which he thinks can be developed into a more user friendly area, 10-22-15. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Ward 4 Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White proposes turning aspects of the Souther Oaks Park and Community Center, next to Parmalee Elementary School, into a Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus. Pete White, shown near a baseball backstop situated in the southern section of the property, near Lightning Creek which he thinks can be developed into a more user friendly area, 10-22-15.

Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White knows the southside. A resident since 1941, White bought his first home near S. Walker Avenue. He sent his children to Parmelee Elementary School at 6700 S. Hudson Ave. These days, his law office is a short drive south of the school and Southern Oaks Library, a branch of the Metropolitan Library System.

He knows the neighborhood and what’s absent: the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. When White learned officials were seeking a permanent home in southwest OKC, he joined the effort.

“I thought it was a great idea,” White said. “Every time we turned around, there was another partnership being formed.”

The quest to bring a wellness facility to an area with documented poor health outcomes isn’t limited to the City of Oklahoma City and the health department. Over the past year, Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS), the Metropolitan Library System, Oklahoma City Community College and the University of Central Oklahoma joined the distinctive union.

Southern proposal

The health department wants to construct and operate a facility in the city’s Southern Oaks Park. The 15,200-square-foot Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus will feature services like immunization, preventive care, counseling, family planning, cooking classes and nutrition/family wellness classes. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program also will be housed at the location, built on an acre of land.

With improving overall community health as its goal, the health department will incorporate OKCPS’ Parmelee school into its campus. Plans include creating classroom space for after-school tutoring programs. The intent is for the campus to connect to Parmelee, a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school, with access to a gym that will double as a safe room.

Additionally, the two college partners would provide new education programs designed for aspiring urban teachers.

The proposed Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus would bring new amenities, including walking trails, soccer fields and a community garden, to the park. Currently, it is home to a basketball court, playground and aging community center, which would move its programs across the street if campus development plans move forward.

Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan backs the proposal. Like White, Maughan has a long history with the area. He learned to read at Southern Oaks Library, where he still checks out books. He sees potential for a wellness campus and modern park.

“It is a great place to get mosquitoes,” the District 2 commissioner said as he described the site’s current state during an Oct. 19 public meeting. “That is what it is now. We have the opportunity to enhance the green space here.”

Other officials also support Maughan and the site development proposal. Oklahoma City Councilman David Greenwell, who represents the southside in Ward 5, pledged his support. The Oklahoma City Park Commission approved a memorandum of understanding between the city, OKCPS and the health department at the Sept. 9 meeting. The blessing from the park commission advances the document for appearance on agendas for the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education and the city council.

Community concerns

Over the past month, project developers and proponents have dispelled misconceptions. In mid-October, three public meetings introduced the project and addressed community questions.

Neighbors voiced concerns about health site services as well as traffic around Parmelee, which already is heavy before and after school.

Just north of the proposed site is land designated for the second MAPS 3 Senior Health and Wellness Center at S. Walker Avenue and Grand Boulevard, between Capitol Hill High School and Hosea Vineyard Park. While both facilities focus on health and wellness, Melinda McMillan, a manager for the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, said services will differ and will appeal to different age demographics.

“The senior wellness center for MAPS 3 is truly focused on seniors,” McMillan said. “This campus, with our elementary school, library, college partners and health department, is coming together to serve everybody, from providing prenatal care to vaccinations.”

The health department will house a mental health counselor on the Southern Oaks campus. That employee will work closely with staff to identify patients who arrive for other services but might also require mental illness treatment. The Southern Oaks center counselor will refer patients to other facilities equipped to help.

White shared concerns of increased traffic along S. Hudson Avenue, which currently ends past the school. Part of the proposal includes extending the road by connecting it to S. Walker Avenue, just north of Southern Oaks Library.

“That was part of the initial piece of the plan,” asserted White. “It is not funded right now, but it is absolutely necessary to make the rest of the plan go forward. It cannot go forward without that piece.”

White believes construction for the building and road would begin first, followed by new park amenities.

Needed service

Ken Johnson, health department spokesperson, said the Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus will mirror the department’s two-year-old Northeast Regional Health and Wellness Campus at 2600 NE 63rd St.

That 54-acre venue provides indoor and outdoor physical activity opportunities, nutrition activities and clinical services. Visitors find an auditorium, playground and walking trails made possible by a donation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma. In the near future, it also will be home to Oklahoma City Energy Football Club’s practice facility.

Johnson reports that, since July 2014, 20,890 people have visited the Northeast Regional site, which includes visits to community meeting rooms, the OU Medical physicians clinic and WIC.

“There is a tremendous need” to bring similar services to southwest OKC, Johnson said. Currently, the health department maintains a location in the city’s southwest quadrant and leases space in a shopping center at 2149 SW 59th St. It lacks room for expansion or for incorporating wellness activities.

The 73129 ZIP code remains among the least-healthy places to live in the county, according to the health department’s 2014 Oklahoma County Wellness Score. That data propelled department officials to bring a new facility to the zip code, which includes neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic statuses and higher teen pregnancy and single-mother family numbers. Additionally, the data shows that residents have a higher rate of heart attack and chronic lower respiratory disease deaths.

Next up

White believes the proposed campus is one-of-a-kind and a “giant step” toward creating a better model of community wellness.

Before dirt moves, White and his fellow council members must approve the memorandum. The school board faces the same task. Approval will advance the Southern Oaks Learning and Wellness Campus into fruition.

White said community meetings will continue to keep the neighborhood informed.

“The focus has been on the health addition. … That is going to be a nice thing, but the value is … we are going to build this park the way it should have been built 30 years ago,” he said. “We are going to finally fix the area around the library and the school. … The side benefits are going to far outweigh the initial benefit.”

Print Headline: Southern living, Leaders want to bring a wellness campus to an area that now experiences some of the poorest health outcomes in the county.

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