Kendra Smith: 2023 YWCA Milestones Honoree for Women on the Rise

Kendra Smith

By Asia Nail
The Truth Reporter

The YWCA of Northwest Ohio has announced the 2023 Honorees for the YWCA Milestones: A Tribute to Women annual award.

Women on the Rise is the new category added this year by the YWCA recognizing three outstanding young women who are making an impact early in their careers, while developing their potential to become a transformative leader in our community. One of this year’s honorees in the Women on the Rise category is Kendra N. Smith.

Women are rising to the challenge of creating innovative healthcare programming addressing the unique needs of their communities. They are leading the way in developing new and effective approaches to healthcare that are more responsive to the needs of diverse people. With expertise, vision, and commitment, female administrators are improving access to care and creating more equitable and just care systems.

As we witness the emergence of new healthcare programs and policies, this year’s YWCA Women on the Rise honoree, Kendra N. Smith, is playing a central role in shaping the future health and well-being of our Midwest communities.

Currently serving as Bon Secours Mercy Healthcare’s Vice President of Community Health for both Ohio and Kentucky, Smith heads various aspects of the hospital’s community health programs and initiatives.

When Smith canvases neighborhoods and talks to people, she smiles and introduces herself. “There’s something special about the energy you get when you take the time to speak to people in person,” shares Smith.  “People can see and feel for themselves when you have a genuine concern for their well-being. There’s no better way to know what people need than to go to where they are and simply ask them.”

As community members explain their health concerns and financial struggles, Smith listens with empathy and understanding. She explains that her role at the hospital includes collecting health-related data that assists people in identifying not only their specific health concerns, but also the issues that may have contributed to them.

Talking to people face-to-face allows me to spread awareness of the different social services available in the community while making sure our healthcare programs are actually helping people get the access and help they need,” she says.

Kendra Smith

Walking through the sterile halls of the hospital as the smell of disinfectant fills your nose, causes many to race with anxiety. Many can’t help but feel surrounded by medical staff and even other patients, seemingly more important than themselves.

There is a sense of relief that washes over you when you know there are professionals willing to help you navigate the often complicated healthcare system. “Our hospital’s innovative programming ensures health educators provide patients with invaluable information about their health conditions and how best to manage them,” explains Smith.

“We help people understand the importance of proper nutrition, exercise and medication management. We also make sure our resources help people make positive changes that are lasting and impactful.”

With the help of their community partners Smith and her team are tackling new approaches to address contributing health factors such as financial stability in our neighborhoods. For instance, the Bon Secours Mercy Health – Franklin Avenue Medical Center – has an on-site Financial Opportunity Center (FOC), which is a joint venture between LISC and NeighborWorks Toledo. Through one-on-one coaching, the FOC helps clients build credit scores, set up budgets, and seek career opportunities.

In addition, the hospital’s innovation team is partnering with PNC Bank as they launch their Getting Your Business Started! Program.  This free eight-week training course is for entrepreneurs living in historically disadvantaged areas of the city and expresses both PNC’s and Bon Secours Mercy Health’s dedication to revitalizing low- to moderate-income communities.

As a Catholic organization, Bon Secours Mercy Health’s mission is to extend the compassionate ministry of Jesus by providing good help to those in need, especially the poor and dying.

Throughout her career, Smith has been an advocate for affordable health care and housing. Her extensive experience in community development and urban planning addresses economic infrastructure and equity issues in metropolitan communities.

“Prior to my role with Bon Secours Mercy Health, I worked at ProMedica as the Director

of Social Determinants of Health, helping to revitalize Toledo’s core neighborhoods,” explains Smith. Her work took a deep dive into areas such as housing, financial stability, safety, workforce development, education and transportation – in addition to health and wellness.

Smith’s career background also includes work in the nonprofit sector. “I worked as an executive director advocating for affordable and accessible housing opportunities, especially for those underserved groups such as seniors and people living with developmental disabilities,” she shares.

At her time working for Chicago’s Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Kendra found, by a number of measures, that the Chicago region is one of the most racially divided regions in the nation. This helped her to have a deeper perspective on how to lessen the disparities and to help marginally-divided communities.

“I finally realized how much intersectionality exists between industries,” says Smith. “My diverse work background really prepared me for the work I do today.”

As a national thought and practice leader in community development, community health, affordable housing, urban planning, and social determinants of health, Smith is making a huge impact in our communities, and it’s inspiring to see all that she’s accomplished.

Smith’s impact highlights include actively engaging over 3,500 regional stakeholders as part of her local comprehensive planning activities. Her health programming has proven positive outcomes in infant mortality disparities and food accessibility. She’s also leveraged over $30 million for affordable housing development in Chicago and Toledo neighborhoods while co-authoring Fair Housing Equity Assessment, Chicagoland’s first regional approach to fair housing.

Ms. Smith explains, “The truth is when families don’t have access to healthy environments and nutritious food, it leads to health problems for the entire household.  Without enough healthy food, moms may not have the nutrients they need to have healthy pregnancies and give birth to strong and healthy babies.”

Sadly, infant mortality disparities are a real issue in our communities. Babies born to moms who live in areas with limited food access are more likely to experience health problems and, in some cases, even die during their first year of life. “That’s why our local partnerships are so important. The support of our initiatives increase access to healthy food and provide resources giving every child a better chance to thrive,” says Smith.

One’s home matters to more than half of Black adults and affects their self-perception. Common issues in Black and Brown communities, such as crime, poverty, violence and homelessness, are common deterrents to health. “The Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union is another one of our partners helping to address housing instability here in Toledo,” explains Smith. “Needing home repairs or upgrades to fix issues like lead paint can really lead to a families overall health in the long term. Our partnership gives residents the access to the financial resources they need to rehabilitate their homes.”

As part of its Direct Community Investment Program, Bon Secours Mercy Health Toledo, has committed $3 million dollars in an effort to offer flexible capital to those in need of home repairs. Over the next five years, the investment will support a low interest loan program for homeowners in central city Toledo needing vital repairs to their homes.

The fund will give priority to borrowers who are not eligible for federal and state resources but who may still not be eligible for other traditional banking products. “The loan program also provides financial education to help homeowners develop a loan repayment plan as they improve their financial stability,” explains Smith.

Ms. Kendra N. Smith, AICP MPH MSUS, has received several distinguished honors including: Euclid Ohio High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame Inductee (2022), Group Recipient/Author of HUD Opportunity & Empowerment Award-for ProMedica Ebeid Neighborhood Promise (2020), as well as being a recipient of Toledo’s 20 Under 40 honor (2017).

She received her Bachelor of Arts from Ohio University in political science and Spanish; a Spanish language and culture certificate from Universidad Pública de Navarra; a graduate certificate in local and urban management from Cleveland State University; a master’s degree from Cleveland State University in urban studies neighborhood and community development; a master of public health from Kent State University; as well as a certificate in executive education for leadership, organizing and action from Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

Smith is a member of the Community Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, the Maumee Valley Habitat for Humanity, Leadership Ohio, Toledo Rotary and Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA).

Across the country, people are encountering difficulties when it comes to accessing healthcare that is responsive to their needs. We thank Kendra Smith for rising to the challenge and developing new healthcare programming throughout the Midwest region that is more inclusive, equitable and effective. Her dedication and hard work is paving the way for a brighter future, where care is accessible to all and tailored to meet the diverse needs of women and other marginalized groups.

When asked what being honored by the YWCA means to her, Smith says, “A special thanks goes out to all the people and partnerships that have had meaningful exchanges with the work I do. I’m truly humbled and appreciative of this honor.”

The YWCA Milestones: A Tribute to Women Awards Luncheon will be held on March 30 at 11:30 a.m. at the Glass City Center.