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How Lakewood Heights became a “holistic health oasis”

While the origins behind those neighborhood signs are mysterious, local businesses aspire to carry on that legacy.

Story by Destinee Marbley, Lakewood Heights Fellow
September 11, 2023
Photos by Nicole Buchanan
How we reported this story:

Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 Lakewood Heights residents about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from that feedback.

Canopy Atlanta also pays and trains community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve the community. Destinee Marbley, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, wrote this story with contributing reporter Jewel Wicker.

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In 2019, Yolanda Neals and Yolanda Owens were searching for the perfect location for a holistic health business that would cater to the Black people they believed most needed it.

Owens was the founder of skin care line Iwi Fresh, its name, “iwi,” nodding to the phrase “it is what it is” and speaking to the line’s organic ingredients. Neals was previously at Sweetwater Wellness Center, a spa in Fairburn, Georgia, offering acupressure and selling Iwi Fresh products.

Late one night, Owens called Neals. “You have to come see this building,” she said.

The next day, they met at Ali at Lakewood, a newly purchased retail center inside a white brick building on the corner of Lakewood Avenue and Jonesboro Road. “The surrounding neighborhood wasn’t the most appealing,” Neals says, not with “trap houses across the street” and “a lot of vagrant activity” at the nearby, vacant Lakewood Elementary building.

But seeing the surrounding neighborhood didn’t deter her. In the ‘80s, Neals grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when, she says, “the crack epidemic actually, basically deteriorated it.” In response, Neals’ mother, Gwen Lanier, founded Mothers of Hope, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to those recovering from substance abuse. And for 10 years, Mothers of Hope hosted a city-wide Ultimate Family Reunion event, providing food, gifts, school supplies, and more to over 10,000 residents.

And so, as Neals and Owens scanned the Lakewood Heights neighborhood, the community that they would serve, Neals says, “We both sort of high-fived each other and said, ‘This is it.’”

In 2020, on the Ali building’s first floor, Neals and Owens broke ground on Iwi Fresh Farms Oasis, offering skincare products, a luxury spa, and practitioners specializing in reiki, sound healing, herbalism, and more. Then in 2021, the women decided to separate their businesses, and Neals opened the Kindred Healing Center, a collective of practitioners specializing in chiropractic care, counseling, and more, on the Ali building’s fourth floor.

“A lot of the services that we provide people normally have to travel north or east or west to be able to get adequate care,” Neals says.

These services are also adding to a legacy with mysterious origins. For decades, Lakewood Heights has boasted signs with the neighborhood’s nickname, “Holistic Health Oasis,” like the one off Jonesboro Road near Lakewood Amphitheatre.

Neals says they hadn’t learned about these signs until renovations for Iwi Fresh Farm Oasis were underway and a Lakewood Heights resident mentioned them.

“I do believe that divinely we ended up here with holistic wellness and the name ‘oasis,’ not by coincidence,” Neals says. “I think there was a larger force working to bring forth the desires of the community.”

 Yolanda Neals stands inside the Kindred Healing Center on August 25, 2023.

In 2015, Creative Loafing contributor Paul DeMerritt searched for signs of that holistic health oasis among the “string of vacant storefronts, lonely parking lots, and sprawling warehouses.” But, he wrote, “Finding evidence of that oasis is difficult.”

It’s also extremely hard to nail down exact information about the origin of those “holistic health oasis” signs that welcome people into the Lakewood Heights neighborhood.

But even if there isn’t evidence of a robust infrastructure around the efforts, Lakewood Heights residents have long advocated for their health.

Community members told Neals that those signs were erected in the late ‘90s, after the city of Atlanta bestowed the designation upon the neighborhood. (Neals would repeat that rumor in 2021 during a crowdfunding campaign to support her new wellness center with Owens.) If that rumor is true, that would be around when Nana Nyarko, who ran the former Lakewood Heights medical clinic Healing Pathways and served as president of the Lakewood Heights Civic Association, rallied other residents against plans for an auto salvage yard in the neighborhood.

Nyarko told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997 that residents were fighting to “really turn this community around.” Such community members alleged the proposed business would pose a health hazard and attract rats and mosquitoes. The salvage yard would have been the latest in a long line of undesirable businesses in the area, including a yard-waste recycling plant and a water treatment plant, all situated on the former General Motors factory site.

After hearing testimony from experts to speak to the potential health hazard that the business would pose to residents, the Atlanta Zoning Review Board sided with neighbors and rejected the salvage yard’s special-use permit. By 1999, Nyarko had become chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit Y (NPU-Y).

Stories like these hint that holistic health has been a longtime priority for Lakewood Heights. Two-year resident Heather Graybill heard that the oasis designation was actually meant to be literal: The 117-acre lot that used to be Lakewood Fairgrounds was situated around “basically a reservoir pond, but it used to be a lake,” Graybill says.

“There were believed to be healing powers from the waters in that lake. Nobody quite talks about it or understands where [this legend] came from today.”

Graybill also serves as secretary for both NPU-Y and the Lakewood Heights Community Association. She says that her time working with the NPU and neighborhood association has taught her a lot about the processes that would go into getting this type of signage erected.

“If I were to tell you how it would work today, the neighborhood association probably would’ve put it up,” Graybill says.

Yet while she has heard that the signs build on a past reputation, other community members say that creating the “holistic health oasis” slogan was about setting new intentions for the neighborhood.

Legacy residents Deborah and David Collins, the latter of whom is a former president of the Lakewood Heights Community Association, remember that neighborhood leaders received a grant from Morehouse School of Medicine Prevention Research Center. The couple helped create a vision plan inspired by the neighborhood’s greenspace and tree canopy.

Five-year resident Travan Foster says that the “holistic health oasis” slogan was “part of a rebranding for this community.”

“I think that was the vision at some point, but it just never happened,” Foster says—at least until recently, when Neals and Owens arrived as what he calls “good examples of what . . . those signs were trying to push for.”

“We wanted to bring the best of what we have to offer from a chiropractic and healing perspective to our community and to our people.”

Brandon Williams

Neals hopes that Lakewood Heights can become “a productive place for people like us that were born and raised in it.” That mission continued to feel urgent as Owens was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2019, Iwi Fresh Farm Oasis opened in 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

While I am currently earning a master’s in sports management from Georgia Southern University, I run my business, StretchUSoon, as a wellness specialist inside the Kindred Healing Center, with services like massage and stretch therapy.

My business found a home in Lakewood in 2022 when my mother recommended I get in touch with Yolanda Owens. I was familiar with Iwi Fresh since I’d had my nails and makeup done at Iwi’s flagship location in Castleberry Hill years ago as a high school senior. Owens had an empty suite at the Iwi Fresh Resting Spa in Lakewood, which eventually became the home for my business. Bringing my business to the Kindred Healing Center felt like a full-circle moment.

Most of my clients at StretchUSoon come to me by word of mouth. I also have a mixed clientele of Lakewood residents and nonresidents. Unfortunately, I’ve talked to many neighborhood residents who don’t know much about the wellness services that exist in the area. The few we do reach and turn into clients are astonished at the healing opportunities just around the corner.

Recently at the Texaco gas station off McDonough Boulevard, an older Black woman who introduced herself as Ms. Tameka (though she wanted me to call her “auntie”) says she was “concerned about the physical and mental health of her neighbors, substance use, and violent crime in the area.”

She teared up as she talked about the importance of having health facilities in communities, and how “a lot of people out here who need help and are not aware of the programs or whatever that’s out here to help you or better a person.” Mental health resources could have helped her cope with childhood abuse and the resulting trauma, which still haunts her as an adult.

Ms. Tameka says she’d never heard of the Kindred Healing Center, Iwi Fresh Farm Oasis, or any of the other holistic health businesses that operated just two miles from where she stood.

One mile south of those businesses is the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill. It’s technically a city-owned park currently managed by a group of four volunteer organizations, including Trees Atlanta and Friends of the Food Forest. But at more than seven acres, it’s also the country’s largest free food forest. Anyone can volunteer to harvest mulberries, pecans, and with its additional community garden, veggies like kale and jalapeños.

(J. Olu Baiyewu, Urban Agriculture Director for the city of Atlanta, strongly recommends contacting the city’s Aglanta department before visiting to ensure proper harvesting and longevity of the property’s resources.)

Wellness coach Celeste Lomax says having free access to fruit and vegetables is extremely important in a food desert that has otherwise limited access to these items. Previously, as a forest steward at the Urban Food Forest, while working with Aglanta, she authored a newsletter that went out to around 700 email addresses and informed residents about events.

Now, though, after being let go from Trees Atlanta because of a lack of funds, she worries that few people in the area know about the Urban Food Forest as a health and wellness space.

Since the Urban Food Forest is public land, Lomax still regularly hosts yoga, sound healing, and other wellness events on the premises, although it’s become increasingly hard to get the word out and sustain these donation-based services on her own.

“I’m spiritually connected more than anything else. It’s not even about the money [for] me. I just know how I healed myself in that space, which is why I want to open it up to help others heal, too. It helped me in such a major way to become the person I am now,” she says.

Lakewood Heights Fellow Destinee Marbley runs her business, StretchUSoon, as a wellness specialist inside the Kindred Healing Center.

Neals also worries that most Lakewood Heights residents don’t even know that the businesses are operating in their community—though perhaps that will change. Recently, the Kindred Healing Center received Invest Atlanta funding to support the company’s first marketing campaign. And in the future, Neals hopes to implement programming that is centered around community and collective healing. Such programming would address substance abuse and provide resources for formerly incarcerated residents.

“Now we are in a space where we are intentionally going out to connect with community leaders, the NPUs, and things of that nature so that we can let them know they have a well-care center in their community,” Neals says.

The irony of the lack of knowledge I’ve seen in the community about local health and wellness services is not lost on me. But my colleagues and I have stepped in with the hopes of holistically filling those gaps.

Each morning, as the Ali building elevator opens to the Kindred Center’s orange walls on the fourth floor, I greet my fellow wellness practitioners.

Business partners Brandon Williams and Joseph Fowler see about 100 clients per week at their chiropractic practice, Aligned 4 Life. (About half their clientele are from Lakewood Heights or surrounding neighborhoods.) The business also hosted two free COVID-19 testing events in the parking lot at the height of the pandemic.

“We wanted to bring the best of what we have to offer from a chiropractic and healing perspective to our community and to our people,” Williams says. “Conventional medicine has its place, but we also want to be able to provide that alternative, holistic perspective.”

Surayya Abdulmateen provides reiki and sound therapy services through her business, Women of Light. “I was invited to the area about three years ago and was impressed by the holistic, naturalistic health and wellness point of view being offered to the community,” she says.

She also remembers how those “holistic health oasis” signs welcomed her to the neighborhood. “I was so excited. I said, ‘Yes. This is the place for me.’”

Regardless of its origin story as a “healing health oasis,” one thing is clear: Our presence is a declaration of a people committed to individual and communal well-being, even when governmental resources and support prove sparse. And the work my colleagues and Lakewood Heights residents are doing to bring health and wellness to the area is a continuation of the identity the neighborhood has long claimed for itself.

Editor: Christina Lee

Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso

Contributing Reporter: Jewel Wicker

Canopy Atlanta Reader: Serena Garcia

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