On a Mission
As president of the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, Crystal Carr Townsend wants to make sure families living in poverty have the health and wellness services they need
When Crystal Carr Townsend was a young girl, her father was a minister at a Methodist church in suburban Baltimore County. She often joined him on his pastoral rounds, visiting sick and grieving parishioners, and one woman—a former gravedigger at the church who had lost a leg to illness—left a vivid impression. “She cursed like crazy,” Townsend recalls, “and I was like, ‘Wow, isn’t this wrong, Dad? Like, really?’ ”
“My dad said, ‘You know, she gave a lot to the church, and she’s angry and upset now and she’s in pain and she needs people to visit her,’ ” Townsend says. “From that experience I learned that sometimes people are not their best selves, but you honor what they gave to the community and honor who they are. I think that’s what my dad was trying to impart—let your values lead you.”
That lesson has guided Townsend her entire life. Now 43, she is president of the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, which provides grants to nonprofits devoted to improving the health of Montgomery County residents. The foundation, started by Suburban Hospital in 1973, distributes about $1.5 million a year to a wide range of projects, from internships for nursing students to pet therapy visits for shut-ins.
Montgomery County is one of the richest counties in the country, but one in six families live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and 14 percent of children lack food security. In one census tract in central Bethesda, the average life expectancy is 92 years; in another tract less than 5 miles away, in Kensington Heights, it drops to 78 years, according to a recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University.
In a way, Townsend is a pastor like her father, caring for a flock that’s in pain and need. “If I can make it a little bit easier for a child or a mom or a dad to get to where they are not struggling every day, that’s my main goal,” she tells me.
Townsend has known plenty of struggles in her own life. Her parents grew up in Damascus, on the northern edge of the county, and when her mother became pregnant with Crystal at 15, they married and moved to rural Kentucky, where her father was attending seminary school. The family lived in a small trailer and depended on food stamps and homemade clothes.
“They had a tough road,” Townsend says, and it didn’t get much smoother when they moved back to Maryland after her father was ordained. “I remember my dad being very frustrated [that] we were still at the poverty line even though he was working,” she recalls. The strain helped splinter her parents’ marriage when she was 12, and her mother—who today has two master’s degrees and teaches at a community college—returned to school and juggled two jobs. “I grew up really fast,” Crystal says. “I was taking care of my sister and brother. I was making the dinners. I was responsible for helping with the bills.”
By 14, she was working several jobs herself—at a pizza parlor, a clothing store, a local pool. She attended Hood College in Frederick, aided by a lacrosse scholarship, and earned a master’s in public administration from Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. One class involved knocking on doors in dangerous neighborhoods, urging pregnant women to attend prenatal clinics. Her friends wondered, “ ‘Like, are you crazy?’ ” she says. But the minister’s daughter was unfazed: “I knew how to do it.”
After graduation, Townsend spent two years in Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer, then cycled through several jobs in the nonprofit world before joining the Healthcare Initiative Foundation seven years ago. Its grants have a “broad reach,” she says, based on an understanding that many factors contribute to overall wellness, from asbestos-free housing and lead-free water to safe places for walking and exercise, and accessible stores for buying nutritious food.
She came to realize, however, that the service providers promoting wellness were clustered in the southern part of the county, while the population, drawn by cheaper housing, was exploding north of Gaithersburg. Townsend lives in Germantown with her husband, John, an engineer, and 5-year-old daughter, and that city “has the fastest-growing population in Montgomery County, but also the fastest growth of poverty,” she says. “There were no services up here, community dollars had not yet come to this area.”
The Healthcare Initiative Foundation chose one Germantown school, Captain James E. Daly Jr. Elementary, as a pilot project. The population is 90 percent minority, nearly half Hispanic, and three-quarters of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. About 135 of the 600 children at Daly live in the county’s only mobile home park.
Townsend’s strategy is to “look at the whole household” and bring together a wide range of services to attack health problems before they start—and to do it from many angles. Delivering those services through a school made a lot of sense, she says. “We try to go where families feel safe, and they felt safe at the school.”
She has recruited eight other nonprofits to join the effort at Daly. The Boys & Girls Clubs set up after-school programs and provided scholarships so that students could join for free. The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind has screened 188 children for vision problems and donated glasses for 44 of them, since better eyesight can improve academic achievement. Future plans include a legal clinic, focusing on undocumented immigrants, and classes in starting a small business.
“What is the phrase—‘the tale of two counties,’ right?” Townsend says. Schools in wealthy areas can raise money to build expensive sports fields, she notes, while in other county neighborhoods, most students are poor enough to receive federally subsidized food. “There is such a discrepancy of opportunity.”
Townsend’s mission is to close that gap, to preach the gospel of equality, to honor the poor “and who they are.” She learned that from her father.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.