Written by Sophie McNeil Wolf

Lead poisoned children are seven times more likely to drop out of school and are six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system. But lead poisoning isn’t prevalent anymore, right?

Catherine Moore Lee, program director for Jackson’s Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, hears this way too often.

“One of the biggest challenges with lead poisoning outreach is that it just isn’t on people’s radar,” she says. “They think of it as a solved problem. It has dropped significantly in our country, but it still is the most widely dispersed toxic element in our environment.”

Supported by the Kellogg Foundation, Jackson’s GHHI works to break the link between unhealthy housing and unhealthy families by creating and advocating for healthy, safe and energy efficient homes. The initiative focuses on eight “elements” of a green and healthy home – dry, clean, safe, well-ventilated, pest-free, contaminant-free, well-maintained, and energy efficient.

Lee first heard of GHHI when she was working as the special projects officer for Mayor Harvey Johnson. GHHI became one of her projects, working out a strategic plan and hosting meetings to put the initiative in place. A few years later, Lee found herself working as the housing director of Midtown Partners when GHHI came calling. Their director had retired and Lee seemed like a natural fit for the job.

“We face so many different health issues in Mississippi that I feel it’s important to raise awareness. Housing issues are health issues. I already had a great opportunity working in Midtown, but I knew I could initiate change. It’s important for me to work with other non-profits that are focusing on addressing health disparities in Jackson to say we are allies with you and we want to work with you, especially with early childhood care.”

Partnership is important to GHHI and Lee. “There’s usually between 25 and 50 agencies that I’m actively reaching out to at a time,” says Lee. Mississippi Housing Partnerships, Midtown Partners, Voice of Calvary Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, Jackson Housing Authority are just a few organizations Lee works with often.

This school year, Lee is working with the United Way and Jackson Public Schools on a Healthy Homes for Kids program in elementary schools that feed to Lanier High School to train counselors about healthy homes and help identify students who are missing school due to asthma. GHHI will offer home visits to identify asthma triggers and give out pillow covers, HEPA filters, and pest management systems in hopes that those students will see less sick days.

“With that, if we can show that small steps can make a difference and reduce doctors costs and time away from school, we can build from there.” Lee said.

Lee is excited about the project, especially since she will be spending time in West Jackson schools where she just completed her year of service with Leadership Greater Jackson.

“It was amazing, the kids were so creative and great to work with.” Brainstorming together, students  created ‘stock the pantry’ boxes for their neighborhoods, raised funds for Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital, organized their own 5k run that garnered almost $12,000, along with LGJ-hosted summer enrichment classes involving partners such as Millsaps College.

A resident of Fondren’s Broadmeadow neighborhood since January 2012, Lee says community is in her blood. Her mother, who has spent her career in U.S. Housing and Urban Development and her father, a political science professor, would take a young Catherine to neighborhood meetings and homeless awareness rallies.

“(What I do) is really a tribute to both of them,” she explains. “They instilled in me and my brother the values of treating all people equally and everyone having access to same good characteristics in places where they live and work. It’s nice to see I make them proud.”

Lee laughs. “If have the capacity to help with (community events), I’m not going to think twice about volunteering myself.”