Unlike Anything Else

At the Bell, we’re always on the lookout for innovative solutions that foster two-generation strategies and address economic inequality. So, when we heard about the work being done at Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, we visited.

The corner of 34th and Dahlia used to be the site of the largest African-American-owned mall in the country, but lack of investment drove out thriving businesses. Broken promises and failed development plans left it empty for years, but today, the area is thriving yet again.

Created as a partnership between the Mental Health Center of Denver and the Northeast Park Hill community, Dahlia Campus opened in January 2016 in the Park Hill neighborhood. The 57,000 square-foot campus follows the vision created jointly by Dr. Lydia Prado and nearby residents.

When first faced with the concept of a mental health facility in their community, some worried what exactly Dahlia Campus would bring to the neighborhood. This led to several conversations with Park Hill residents and local leaders wherein they shared what they wanted out of Dahlia Campus. Quickly, Prado realized a central theme and chose to weave it into the fabric of what the campus would one day become: food.

As Prado told the Denver Post before the opening of Dahlia Campus, “How do I talk to you about dealing with trauma and raising your children if in fact, they are hungry?”

What was once a food desert – the closest healthy grocery store is nearly two miles away – is now home to an urban farm and aquaponics greenhouse, thanks to Dahlia Campus. It offers a food box program with individual and family plans so residents can take home leafy greens, fresh vegetables and fruits, and soon, fish raised in its own closed-loop greenhouse. Healthy cooking classes are offered in the community kitchen, and on Wednesday evenings between June and October, a farmer’s market is hosted with produce grown on-site.

Dahlia Campus also delivers on other important community asks highlighted in those early planning stages: an inclusive preschool offers full-day learning and care; the Skyline Academy provides treatment and educational services to kids struggling in traditional school settings; community spaces like a gym, teaching kitchen, and garden are open to everyone; mental health services are located on campus for those of any age; a pediatric dental clinic helps tackle gum disease and dental problems of school-age children, a leading cause of school absences in the area.

This model is a unique not just in Colorado, but the country, because it doesn’t pigeonhole mental health into the often-stigmatized misconception of institutionalized care. Instead, it treats mental health and well-being as part of the greater scheme to provide underserved communities with what they need to get ahead and stay ahead.

“Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being challenges us to stop looking at ‘single-risk factors’ and insists a person’s well-being comes from a healthy mind, body, and community,” says Prado.

Just over a year past its introduction to Park Hill, Dahlia Campus has opened its doors and services to over 6,000 people. Of those, 4,000 are community members who have joined to help other residents by providing services on the campus.

The capital funding for Dahlia Campus was raised through bonds and a robust capital campaign. Operational funding is sustained through a combination of grant funding, Medicaid, Colorado general fund dollars, and private philanthropy.