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From Portland to Zimbabwe, nonprofits find innovative ways to provide holistic health care

Intergenerational housing, peer support and community-based mental health solutions help fill gaps left behind by traditional health care models.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Three generations living together in a connected community, peers helping others experiencing homelessness, and grandmothers trained to offer counseling to people suffering from depression: from Portland to Zimbabwe nonprofits are innovating ways to deliver holistic health care.

Dr. Derenda Schubert, the executive director of Bridge Meadows, Dr. Rachel Solotaroff, the president and CEO of Central City Concern, and Dr. Dixon Chibanda, the founder and CEO of Zimbabwe's Friendship Bench were guests on this week's episode of Straight Talk.

Watch the full episode on YouTube:

Intergenerational living helps kids and elders flourish

Bridge Meadows is an intergenerational housing community designed to encourage connection between generations. Elders seeking a sense of purpose support children and families who have experienced foster care. 

It has locations in North Portland, Beaverton, and Redmond.

Dr. Derenda Schubert said health at Bridge Meadows means living with intention and flourishing, and being surrounded by people who care about you. 

Describing one child's reaction to living at Bridge Meadows, she said the child said, "Most people have just two grandmothers. I have like 42."

That translates into what health is all about at Bridge Meadows, Schubert said. 

"This child knows he's not alone. He has not only his family and his siblings who care about him, but he also has this entire community of people who care," said Schubert. "That can give us a sense of groundedness and help us flourish."

RELATED: ‘To give love, to foster love': Oregon foster parent starts nonprofit during pandemic

A holistic approach to homelessness

The mission at Central City Concern is to find solutions to homelessness in a holistic way. The Portland-based nonprofit owns, manages, and provides services for 2,000 units of supportive housing in the metro area. It provides supportive employment services, comprehensive health care including mental health and addiction care, and peer support.

RELATED: New Portland facility to double as clinic, affordable housing

Dr. Solotaroff called peer support the "secret sauce" of what they do at Central City Concern.

"People who have that lived experience walking alongside clients, patients, and residents helping guide them along their journey. That's because maybe that peer is a couple of years further along and can really help chart the course for that individual" she said.

Solotaroff said the innovation comes by weaving health, housing, employment, and peer support together, where each of the interventions play off each other.

"The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. That might look different for different populations, so the innovation can take a lot of different forms," she said.

Solotaroff said she dreams of a day where that kind of innovation isn't considered new and innovative, but is common best practice.

Watch a continued conversation with Dr. Schubert and Dr. Solotraroff on YouTube:

Grandmothers as counselors in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, there are only 12 practicing psychiatrists for a country of more than 16 million. That's a common problem in sub-Saharan Africa where it's estimated there's only one psychiatrist or psychologist for every 1.5 million people.

Recognizing the great need for more mental health caregivers, Dr. Dixon Chibanda pioneered a non-traditional approach to helping people suffering from anxiety and depression. It's called the Friendship Bench, where grandmothers are trained to be community health workers, providing basic behavioral therapy to their communities. Grandmothers meet clients for one-on-one therapy under the trees on wooden park benches in safe spaces in the community.

"The model is simple. We train trainers from communities across the country who go out and train grandmothers with lived experience in their own communities. We allocate park benches in those communities and we facilitate referrals from social media, radio, and primary care facilities," Chibanda said.

After a few sessions on the Friendship Bench, the client is referred to join a support group in their community.

Why grandmothers?

The grandmothers are chosen based on referrals from respected community leaders and organizations.

Dr. Chibanda said the grandmothers are able to assist people in the place they have lived all their lives. He called them the "custodians of local wisdom and culture," who are truly rooted in their communities.

"They create that glue that brings the community together," he said. "They are approachable. They're good listeners and they are very good storytellers."

Friendship Bench expands beyond Zimbabwe

Chibanda said in four years, the Friendship Bench has reached 80,000 people.

The model has expanded beyond Zimbabwe to Malawi and Tanzania, and all the way to the Bronx and Harlem in New York City, in a pilot project in conjunction with the New York City Health Department.

Chibanda believes the Friendship Bench project offers lessons to everyone.

"Everyone of us can offer mental health support in our communities. You don't have to be trained. You don't have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist. The key lesson is we need to have empathy and the ability to make people feel respected and understood. That's pervasive. That's global," he said.

His dream is the mission of the organization he founded; to have a Friendship Bench within walking distance everywhere.

"Because I truly believe if we can make it possible for communities to support each other globally, we will make the world a better place," Chibanda said.

How you can help

Dr. Schubert, Dr. Solotaroff and Dr. Chibanda all expressed gratitude for community support. You can donate to their nonprofits here:

Central City Concern

Bridge Meadows

The Friendship Bench

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 4:30 a.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.