Swathes of greenery drape over water tanks in the E3 Aquaponics center in the East Topeka Pine Ridge Manor neighborhood, just one of numerous projects that include a new primary health care facility.
The aquaponics center was launched by the Topeka Housing Authority and THA Inc., the nonprofit arm of the organization, more than three years ago as an entrepreneurship project to help youth in the public housing neighborhood.
“We started the aquaponics program as a way to get older youth involved in a small business,” said Trey George, THA Inc. executive director. “We recruit youth from the neighborhood. We refer to them as co-owns of the facility and they get business cards. We focus very heavily on very basic soft skills, punctuality, teamwork, how to shake a hand, make eye contact.”
Aquaponics grows plants in water where fish or other aquatic animals live, and their waste supplies nutrients for the plants. George said he didn’t know what it was when the idea was first proposed, but he researched, became intrigued and went to the Topeka Community Foundation with the proposal.
Today, the facility is located in an old mower and maintenance shop at 2705 S.E. 10th St., and it draws youth in from not just Pine Ridge, but also Topeka USD 501 schools, which uses the business as part of its curriculum. Having the juniors and seniors working in the lab there during the school year was helpful to George, who said it was a lot to handle for THA employees who get spread a little thin.
“They’ve been able to spend a lot of time conducting research, identifying flaws in the system, making recommendations,” he said. “It’s a good learning experience for them.”
Although George doesn’t expect many of the youth involved to seek out full-time careers in aquaponics, the lessons learned about business and those soft skills are invaluable. E3 also
supports many STEM activities.
For George, the center is just one of multiple projects supporting residents at the public housing communities for which THA is responsible.
“We believe wholeheartedly and our board is amazing and supports us every step of the way that these additional services are critical to increasing the success of our families,” he said.
A new and exciting project underway is the renovation of a four-bedroom residential unit into a primary care center.
It will be located right next to a wellness center, which opened about two years ago, that will be focused primarily on mental health care in the future, George said. THA Inc. partnered with the Washburn University School of Nursing to solicit a grant, and Washburn has developed a curriculum focused on community-based care for their nurse practitioners.
As part of that grant, surveys in the neighborhoods — like those done as part of the NOW Initiative — found that many were concerned about access to healthcare and not having reliable transportation, George said.
One mother of five kids talked about getting all five kids ready, paying for six bus passes and then traveling across town for one child to see one provider.
“And you have to do that over and over again — it’s costly but it’s also a challenge to do,” George said.
Over time, as the primary care facility is renovated, George is hoping to bring back a dental provider, a service they had in the past but were unable to continue, and to also add optometry.
He’s hoping the renovations will be done to open in mid-September. There will be three treatment rooms and a reception area, as well as an on-site lab. A nurse practitioner will staff the facility.
George currently is working to fund the primary care clinic, and Advisors Excel stepped up and agreed to pay half the nurse practitioner’s salary for the first year.
To fund the many initiatives and needs that help THA residents, George said his organization
will host its first-ever fundraising event in October.
A Home Matters Awareness Luncheon will be held Oct. 2, and anyone interested in sponsoring the event can call (785) 357-8842.