The English translation of Bon Secours is "good help," and nothing embodies that like the Bon Secours Hampton Roads Health System’s Healthy Communities Initiative.

In the summer of 2009, the health system partnered with New Life Christian Center and Virginia Beach-based Operation Blessing International Relief and Development Corp. to start the Healthy Communities Initiative in East Ocean View, a small coastal community in Norfolk, Va. But, in November 2009, remnants of Hurricane Ida developed a nor’easter offshore, resulting in massive flooding in the community — adding even more urgency to the initiative.

“The flood really brought a focus to that area,”says Michael Kerner, CEO of Bon Secours Hampton Roads Health System. Soon after, other Norfolk community partners joined in the effort to revitalize a section of Norfolk where approximately 4,500 people reside. Many of them, including the Navy, took a different approach to rebuilding East Ocean View and found that many of their needs were not directly health-related.

“Sometimes we have a tendency to go into a community, and it may be just our nature that everyone wants to help, but they don’t listen to the community first to see what’s needed,” Kerner says. “This work really does address the fact that there are needs in addition to health care, and we do provide that health care piece, but we also provide a number of other things.”

That includes rebuilding and expanding the community storehouse, which holds food for residents in need while providing jobs for five men who had been unemployed. More than 40,000 pounds of food were given away during the storehouse’s reopening. To date, more than 7 tons of food have been distributed during the storehouse’s existence — a vital need in East Ocean View.

One request from residents took Bon Secours and its partners by surprise: landscaping. Bennett’s Creek Wholesale Nursery donated more than $13,000 in shrubs and plant material toward a beautification effort.

Of course, tackling medical issues is an essential part of the East Ocean View initiative. The Passport to Health program addresses heart disease, diabetes and obesity problems prevalent among residents by giving participants an overall health assessment — measuring cholesterol, glucose and other areas. Six months later, patients are brought back and results are compared. The program also provides educational classes, cooking demonstrations and farm-to-table produce bags twice a month, along with weekly exercise classes.

The coastal community had no medical facility — now, the Bon Secours Care-a-Van mobile health unit is deployed twice a month in partnership with Lighthouse Community Church to reach out to the community’s uninsured residents. And in 2013, the East Ocean View Medical and Dental Center opened, providing primary care, a pharmacy, diagnostic tests and other critically needed services.

But it is the long-term commitment to health needs and the partnership's investment in the small community that has made this initiative successful, Kerner says. “They’ve probably seen a lot of people come and go and act as if they wanted to help in the community, but a multiple-year commitment is something you need to do. You can’t move the dial and change much in a short period of time.”

About the award

Each year, the American Hospital Association honors up to five programs led by AHA member hospitals as “bright stars of the health care field” with the AHA NOVA Award. Winners are recognized for improving community health by looking beyond patients’ physical ailments, rooting out the economic and social barriers to care and collaborating with other community stakeholders. The AHA NOVA Award is directed and staffed by the AHA's Office of the Secretary. Visit for more information.