Voice of the WHI: Versell Smith, Jr., Executive Director, the Corner Health Center

In June, WHI Communications Committee co-chair, Liz Conlin, spoke with Versell Smith, Jr., executive director at the Corner Health Center and longtime member of the WHI, to discuss the history of his organization, the health inequities he sees in our community, and the many ways his organization is serving Washtenaw County’s youth and young adults.

Q. Tell us a little about the history of the Corner Health Center and where the organization stands today.
Smith. The Corner started in 1979. We were the first school-based health care center in the state of Michigan — founded on the principle of reducing teenage pregnancy rates in Washtenaw County. The rates were disproportionately high in Ypsilanti compared to neighboring cities, mainly Ann Arbor. So our founders wrote a grant to start a health care center [to address this and other youth health needs].

We started in Ypsilanti High School — in the corner, hence the name. However, there was new legislation that prevented the distribution of contraception on school property. So we made the decision to move and became a school-linked health center instead. We’re really proud of that distinction — being the oldest and first. 

Today, as an integrated health care agency, we deliver primary and mental health care under one roof. It’s a more engaging, home-like environment — a one-stop shop. Clients can even get food at our pantry or supplies from the Corner Store. So it’s unique for our patients to come and meet with a care manager or social worker who can then refer them to therapy or other things they may need.

Some of our top services are mental and behavioral health, sexual and reproductive health, obstetrics and gynecology, and gender-affirming care. We have a clinic that supports services for transgender patients. And each week we have a day that’s fully allocated to supporting our LGBTQ populations.

Q. What originally inspired your passion for this work?
Smith. It sort of found me. Before the Corner, I had never worked at a non-profit organization. But I had always been interested in philanthropy from a giving standpoint. My parents were people who really believed in giving back to the community. So it’s an honor to continue their legacy.
Through development, one can connect the dots between what the community needs are and where the resources are to satisfy those needs. I was able to see this firsthand — connecting donors to a cause or directly linking work to whatever the community needs are. That way, you can truly make a difference in the community and see the result of how the work enriches lives.

I also have roots in Washtenaw County – born and bred here. Knowing that I’m here to advance the lives of young people is really great.

Q. What health challenges or gaps keep you up at night?
Smith. I’m always challenged with how to address widespread health inequities as a result of the existing, unfair systems that affect our patients’ health. I think it’s impossible to ignore the national narrative and evolution around health inequities [among communities of color]. Working in Ypsilanti, it’s really an important issue for the patients we serve. And it’s not only their access to health care. It’s their overall health status. Where we are today, as a result of police killings — it just exposes the need to provide more support for those communities that are affected. 

So that certainly keeps me up at night, thinking: what more can I do? What needs are there that are not being met in the community that the Corner — on its own or through partnerships — can help address?The other thing is the COVID-19 pandemic — knowing that there are still people refusing to get the vaccine.
I’m very proud to say that the Corner is 95 percent vaccinated. We took very deliberate steps to review the science, provide education, and offer a platform to dialogue and listen to our staff’s concerns about inequities and medical apartheid [the history of medical experimentation on African-Americans resulting in mistrust of the medical establishment to this day]. I think all of that resulted in our high vaccination rate.

We also just received a grant to do more outreach and education around COVID-19 vaccination. So we’re in the beginning stages of how we can support the needs of the community through this funding.

Q. What are your proudest professional accomplishments?
Smith. I’m proud of our ability to be nimble in response to our community needs. I’ll cite our mental health program as an example of that.
When I stepped into my role, we had a very small mental health program. We’ve now built it up to six providers. We’ve forged an incredible partnership with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. Their [Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation] millage dollars are supporting our psychiatrists, which allows our patients to receive psychiatric evaluations and medication reviews right here. I’m proud that we’re able to provide mental health services at the Corner. We’re being really innovative in how we’re expanding our services. For example, we’re also providing these services within schools.

I also sit on the board of the directors of the School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan (SCHA-MI), the agency that leads efforts to establish school-based health centers. Part of my work with them is advocating for more funding and other school-based health centers, like the Corner, throughout Michigan.
And some of my other proudest moments are from interacting with patients. 

Recently, there was a young African American client who was so elated to see another African American man leading an agency. There was a sense of comfort and relaxation in his eyes — that I had his back, that I was going to advocate for him, and that he was in good hands at the Corner because he trusted me to make sure he was OK. That moved me so deeply. I’ve always worked with mentees, as well as maintained mentors in my life. You’re able to connect those who have a need and those who are in a position to give.

Q. Why did you join the Washtenaw Health Initiative, and how has it been helpful?
Smith. Corner Health was one of the founding partners of the WHI, so I’ve been a member since working here. The WHI gives us the opportunity to meet with our colleagues and create partnerships. We’re able to learn about the demographics of other local social service agencies — different constituents in the community that we may not yet be serving — so that we can have access to those groups as well.

At Corner, we are the child and adolescent health care experts. By being part of the WHI, we can develop relationships with other similar agencies that help us think through not only how we’re providing quality care, but also the ways in which we can engage with other partners to provide new wraparound services.
For example, even though we’re a “health care center,” we also delivered over 10,000 pounds of food last year through a partnership with Food Gatherers.
Likewise, our education and outreach programs reach thousands of people. During COVID, our young people were suffering tremendously. Not only did they lack the resources necessary for them to do their online learning, but through social isolation, we’ve seen an increase in depression and anxiety. So Corner was ready to launch an online series to reach young people, offering remote, virtual programming. We had participants from across the country and even overseas. We’re doing a hybrid approach now. 

As we look deeper into social determinants of health — and health inequities in our county — I see more opportunity for greater and stronger partnerships within the WHI. And even on a broader level — looking at racism and how it distributes more power and resources to one race over another. Bearing that in mind, we are working together to address these issues to create health equity in our county.

Q. Who or what inspires you to continue working for improved health in our county?
Smith. We have three generations of patients who have come through the doors of the Corner. So knowing that we are still a viable resource and that we’re here for them. And also knowing that we can make a real impact on the lives of young people.
I was on the street the other day and there was a young man who used to come in on a regular basis. He’d come in and get food. I suspected he was couch surfing. 

And he just saw me and his face lit up. He realized he hadn’t been to Corner since COVID happened. He asked if he could come by and I said yes, by all means!
Just knowing that he remembered me after some chance interactions. It inspires me to continue to show up — totally judgment free. And to continue to work hard to make sure we have the resources we need so that the Corner will be around for many years to come.

Versell Smith, Jr. has been with the Corner Health Center for over six years. He began as the organization’s chief development officer before becoming the executive director, a role in which he has served for the past four years.
The Corner gives regular “mission tours” of their space and services. If interested in scheduling a tour, please contact Amarsha Freeman-James at afjames@cornerhealth.org