Allison Cerco serves on Asbury Park’s Mayors Wellness Campaign committee and is a Community Outreach Manager for Hackensack Meridian Health. She was awarded the Mayors Wellness Campaign 2020 Champion of Health award. The Mayors Wellness Campaign is a program of the Quality Institute in partnership with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
You are involved with the Asbury Park Mayors Wellness Campaign (MWC) through your role at Hackensack Meridian Health. In what ways do these combined roles help you to improve health and wellness in the Asbury Park community?
I oversee Community Outreach for the southern region of our hospital system, which includes Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, Ocean Medical Center in Brick, and Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin. I also oversee pediatric outreach for our network. At Hackensack Meridian Health, our goal is to improve the health and wellness of the communities we serve. The Asbury Park Mayor’s Wellness Campaign has the same goal so it’s a perfect partnership.
I work on creating and organizing programs focused on prevention and wellness. That can be through preventive health screenings to detect disease early, through education about the risk factors and changes we can make to reduce them or engaging community members to take control of their health by participating in self-management programs, such as quitting smoking or learning to manage their diabetes. I have a vast number of expert resources at my disposal, such as physicians, nurse educators, registered dieticians, pharmacists and more who volunteer their time to educate the community. This can be through a traditional lecture or seminar or even a live cooking demonstration. Hackensack Meridian Health even has a mobile health van that I can bring to a community event to reach people right where they live, work or play. A big part my job is collaborating and building strong relationships with community partners, such as the Mayors Wellness Campaign.
Asbury Park’s MWC does a great job of using data to inform its work. How have you used data to look at the social determinants of health in your community and plan programming to address the needs?
Data really gives us a true understanding of a community’s needs. At Hackensack Meridian Health, we conduct a community health needs assessment every three years. The study incorporates feedback directly from community leaders who also help us determine what the most pressing issues are. We completed a survey in 2019 that explored social determinants of health, as well as disease prevalence and health behaviors. As a result of the study, Hackensack Meridian Health has made a large investment in addressing the social determinants of health such as food security, housing stability, transportation, and behavioral health. Patients are screened for social needs and provided referrals to community resources that can help them address those issues.
How has the pandemic shifted the priorities and goals of the MWC?
We knew, even as the world was shutting down, we couldn’t stop doing what we were doing. We just had to find a new way to do it. The pivot to virtual learning provided a way to continue to engage our communities and provide the needed information and education they need. Important information about COVID-19, such as how to protect yourself, where to get tested and how to get vaccinated, was provided in English and Spanish. The pandemic highlighted the basic needs that families were struggling with, such as food and transportation. Asbury Park’s free senior transportation program was expanded to include anyone age 18 or older who needed transportation to medical appointments or the grocery store. Food insecurity became more of an issue during COVID, so we’re supporting food distributors for the community and giving people resources.
What keeps you inspired and dedicated to this community work?
I love what I do. I love going to work every day and I’m passionate about improving the lives of the residents in the community. And what’s inspiring is when I see that we’re making a difference. Maybe we helped someone get food when they didn’t know when their next meal was coming from. Or we helped people take better control of their high blood pressure. Community members sometimes follow up with our team and let us know they made lifestyle changes and are feeling healthier and happier. We also have great support from Asbury Park Mayor John Moor as well as an active and engaged committee.
We like to learn something about people beyond their professional life. How have you focused on your own health and wellness during the pandemic?
I have two children who have been doing virtual school — which can be stressful and overwhelming. You really need to take care of yourself so you can take care of others. So even if you have two or three minutes you should take time for yourself … maybe deep breathing or meditation. That has helped me a lot. A good thing about the pandemic for me was the time we had together as a family. We often take walks together, watch movies, play games, and just spend quality time together, which is all good for the soul.