Theo's story - California
My grandfather bought an old Victorian home and filled it with his family: my mother and her two sisters, and their eight children. My brother and I grew up surrounded by this large, extended family in the Bayview-Hunters Point area of San Francisco. Although most considered the neighborhood disadvantaged, some of my earliest memories are the classic ones – playing outside and walking to school. My mother and grandfather did a good job of protecting me from outside forces that come with low-income neighborhoods.
The average median income was far less than any other part of the city, and we had all the symptoms of living in an industrial area. Our community faced high rates of asthma and infant mortality, gun violence, pollution and heavy traffic. There was a wastewater facility right in the middle of the neighborhood. Plus a navy shipyard. Our roads were truck routes. You would see heavy industrial operations on one side of a street and single family homes on the other side. It was a recipe for toxicity that did not exist elsewhere in San Francisco.
During those years, my walk to school was a route filled with memories of friends and family who fell victim to gun violence. We didn’t know how to react and we became numb. Shootings became normal and they shouldn’t have. The tragedy and trauma of gun violence and mental health needs get ignored in low-income communities, especially African American neighborhoods.
I was blessed to avoid major medical scares growing up. Having the security of Medi-Cal coverage (California’s Medicaid program) helped with health care needs, such the chronic nosebleeds I had as a kid. I did get doctor visits, but early on I became very aware of what insurance covered because we could not afford to pay for what it didn’t cover. Without Medi-Cal, we would have added another vulnerability to an already uncertain life. The worst thing one might imagine is a medical expense on top of all the other financial pressures that come with growing up in a single parent household.
Theo Ellington works in San Francisco as a public relations consultant. He is a former San Francisco commissioner for human rights and served as public relations director for the Golden State Warriors.
Today I am a college graduate with a productive life thanks in part to a tight-knit family that believed in me and helped me dream of something much greater. My childhood experiences helped me understand that health care is a basic human right and should be embedded in our society. As unfortunate as it is, some people are born into a situation they cannot change. Yet our health outcomes shouldn’t be determined by our zip code but by the compassion and persistence of those who serve us.