Newly appointed Dayton Children’s Center for Child Health and Wellness Director Jessica Saunders and team help children and their parents lead a healthier lifestyle.

Preparing our children today for tomorrow’s workforce is a popular topic these days, but keeping them healthy enough to learn, grow and thrive is the key to the future success of our community as well. No one knows that better than Jessica Saunders, MPA and director of Dayton Children’s Center for Child Health and Wellness.

“It is our goal to ensure that all children in our region are happy and safe,” says Saunders. “That means helping children and parents in the community long before they might ever walk through our hospital doors.”

In early 2015, Dayton Children’s launched the Center for Child Health and Wellness as part of its Destination 2020 strategic plan. Saunders was tapped to lead the effort after working with Children’s for the past eight years as the community relations manager, leading health and wellness initiatives, including the Kohl’s A Minute for Kids campaign, Safe Kids Greater Dayton and the Regional Occupant Protection Program. She manages the MeadWestvaco Family Resource Center and has been project manager of the community health needs assessment over the last three cycles. Saunders is also adjunct faculty for both the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine Department of Public Health and the University of Dayton Department of Public Administration. She earned her undergraduate degree and her masters of public administration from the University of Dayton as well.

Making An Impact

“It is important to formalize how we engage with the community to improve the wellbeing of our residents,” says Saunders. “We are not just talking about health, we want measureable results that show how what we are doing is having an impact. We are building strong care alliances throughout Dayton that will help us align with community and child-serving organizations to improve the health and vitality of our local children.”
According to the Center, it will focus on making the Miami Valley one of the healthiest places to grow up through education and outreach, child health policy and research. It will lead community health assessment research, which is conducted every three years, to determine the key issues facing the community and children. For example, according to a media release, the 2014 health assessment determined childhood obesity, mental illness and safe sleep were the top three concerns in the area. Based on that research, Dayton Children’s launched initiatives targeting those issues to better serve the community’s needs and keep kids healthy and safe.

“We are learning more and more about how children’s behaviors and their environment can affect their health. There are a lot of resources for families in our community to help them understand and deal with these issues, however they may not be aware of them or know how to take advantage of them,” says Saunders. “Our goal is to align those programs and coordinate services here, as well as at a regional, state and national level to provide Dayton area parents and kids with the best tools to prevent illness, injury and other harm, as well as improve the overall health of our kids.” 

A Dayton Love Affair

Saunders has an ongoing love affair with Dayton. The University of Dayton drew her here from Sheboygan, Wis., and after earning two degrees as a Flyer, she and her husband ended up in Cleveland. However, they missed the Miami Valley. When Saunders was offered a position at Dayton Children’s, they didn’t hesitate to move back.

“I actually interned at Dayton Children’s when I was going to school at UD and always hoped for an opportunity to join them again one day,” says Saunders. “And we love Dayton! It is so easy to live here and get around because everything is so close.”

Saunders and her husband enjoy what they refer to as the “fantastic assets of Dayton,” such as the varied selections of sports and arts as well as the fascinating history of the Dayton area. 

“We are history buffs and we love being a part of a community where so many things have been invented. Even today, people in Dayton are always working to make things better and I love being around people who think like that,” says Saunders. “But of course, our season UD basketball tickets may be our favorite thing about living in Dayton!”

While she doesn’t have much downtime, Saunders enjoys time with her young family, which will grow by one this summer. She is also an active member and past president of the Junior League of Dayton, serves on the Project Read Board and is a graduate of the Leadership Dayton Class of 2013 and also serves on the organization’s governing board. Her passion for the area’s youth also comes out through an ongoing blog that she creates for the Dayton Children’s website.

Seeing Into The Future

Saunders says that Dayton Children’s is another one of those special amenities about living in Dayton. Even though the title seems to speak mainly to the children in the community, she knows what an impact the organization and its partners can have on the future of Dayton. As the only local organization solely dedicated to the health of kids, Saunders knows that Dayton Children’s will be the leader to drive community-wide change for children’s health.

“At the end of the day, we want to have a measureable results about how the health of our children can impact our entire community,” says Saunders. “For example, too often, poor health can be a key driver of kids missing school, and then parents missing work. When kids miss out on education, it impacts the entire family and community around them and we will work to identify how these issues trickle down to impact all of our local citizens. We can make a difference in the entire community just by improving the health and practices of our youngest residents.”