COMMUNITY: Help yourself – with a CHEER

COMMUNITY • BY STEPHEN WALDRON

“I’m a community organizer at heart.” Nailah Gobern-Lee told the audience at a documentary screening in Takoma Park.

People spoke up with concerns about their neighborhoods, while Gobern-Lee and other members of CHEER answered questions.

The CHEER group set up this meeting to talk to people about what changes they want in their community, and what the public can do to help.

“We’re assisting in the process,” said Gobern-Lee, “but they’re doing it.”

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A Takoma Park resident signs in as Bruce Baker, CHEER founder, and Nailah Gobern-Lee, CHEER community coordinator, prepare for a documentary screening at the Takoma Park Community Center on Oct. 2.

And with the grant money they received in May, CHEER wants to help people do a lot more.

CHEER stands for “Community Health and Empowerment through Education and Research,” and the group develops programs that help people help themselves.

These programs deal with everything from healthcare to making sure people in the community have decent living conditions.

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Gia Mejia, CHEER research consultant, writes down citizens’ thoughts after a documentary screening at Takoma Park Community Center on Oct. 2.

The group’s biggest project right now is the Long Branch Health Enterprise Zone, which will provide healthcare information to people in the community, and help people get access to treatment.

When Bruce Baker started CHEER five years ago, he said they were operating on a “shoestring budget.” That began to change last year when CHEER developed a plan to increase the community’s access to housing, employment, and healthcare.

The plan caught the attention of the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, who donated to the cause this year. Since then, the organization has taken up shop in an office on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring, and Baker has hired two employees.

Gobern-Lee started working at CHEER two months ago, and serves as community coordinator. She has been working on a project with the Essex House high-rise apartments in Takoma Park, where CHEER is encouraging residents to unite and work to improve their neighborhood.

So far, Gobern-Lee says, she’s been happy with the results.

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Bruce Baker, CHEER founder, and Nailah Gobern-Lee, CHEER community coordinator, lead a discussion with citizens at the Takoma Park Community Center on Oct. 2.

“It’s exciting to see the leadership team at Essex House take on these roles,” Gobern-Lee said, “and feel empowered to make a change in their own community.”

CHEER holds regular discussions where the community is encouraged to speak their mind. Baker said that these gatherings are important because they remind people that they have a voice.

“We make sure at every meeting that people feel heard, and that what they contribute makes a difference.” said Baker. “That is the empowerment element of CHEER.”

Gia Mejia is also working for CHEER as a research consultant. Like Gobern-Lee, she says she is interested in creating projects that can improve peoples’ lives.

“I’ve always been really passionate about community organizing.” said Mejia. “I grew up in a low-income environment, so I know what the barriers can be.”

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Nailah Gobern-Lee, community coordinator, answers questions at a CHEER meeting at the Takoma Park Community Center on Oct. 2.

Mejia is primarily working on the Health Enterprise Zone, gathering information and figuring out what programs would be best for the community. She is focused on constructing an interactive map of the area’s healthcare assets, which Mejia says can be updated by anyone in the community.

“It’s Wikipedia style, crowd-sourced health resources for the community.” said Mejia.“I think something like that could be really valuable.”

As for the future of the organization, Baker says that he hopes it can inspire other areas to take action.

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Nailah Gobern-Lee, community coordinator, Bruce Baker, CHEER founder, and Gia Mejia, research consultant, talk to Takoma Park residents about their concerns on Oct. 2 at the Takoma Park Community Center.

“I want CHEER to help people and be a model of community empowerment,” said Baker, “and strong community that could be replicated in other places.”

Mejia agreed, and said CHEER has been able to succeed because of the community’s active members.

“It’s not like we’re creating new energy. It’s more like organizing the energy that already exists and channeling it.” said Mejia. “I’m excited to be a part of something like that.”