As Executive Director of the Passport Health Foundation, Keisha Deonarine is in a unique position to help Louisvillians improve their health and wellness. The foundation is the sister organization to Passport Health and focuses on health and economic development, providing grants and funding to support health integration and innovation. Keisha is also a mom of two and a lover of all things Disney. We talked to her about how she manages it all, found out her best advice and more. Welcome our newest FACE of Louisville!
Tell us about you — where are you from, and what brought you to Louisville?
I was born in Trinidad, and we moved to Brooklyn, NY, when I was 3 years old, which is pretty comical because when you move to Brooklyn, it’s like you’ve not moved out of your country. There’s just so much culture and diversity. When my mom and dad realized that there’s a cold winter there, we moved to Fort Lauderdale, and I went to high school and college there. My parents still live there. I got married and had two beautiful children — Amina, 15, and Jason, 7 — and then came here seven years ago, during the divorce — my sister lived here.
Tell us about the Passport Foundation.
Passport Health Plan, to give you that context, is a 20-year-strong Medicaid organization. They have 320-plus Medicaid members across the state of Kentucky. Mark Carter, who is the CEO of Passport, had a vision of looking at how funds could be spent in the community but also how we look at health integration — mental health, physical health and these gaps of social care. How can we integrate these to impact the community directly? So our foundation looks at different strategies in health, and we find funding to pilot those who are not covered by Medicaid services. We also identify social factors that are barriers and hindrances to people. Some of the things we work on could be substance abuse recovery — not the clinical and behavioral side, but how are we looking at what folks need when they come out of detox. What does that person need to survive in the workforce? So we’re not only holistically approaching the human being, but we’re also looking at ways to give them an equal playing field. There’s an equity component to that, too, which is really important to us.
What do you love about your job?
What I love most about it is that we have the ability to really create change. It’s very different than anything I’ve seen before. We’re not just saying, “You’re struggling with transportation, so here’s a car.” And we don’t want to discredit the folks doing that, but we want to understand the “why.” Why are you struggling to get in that car, what other social factors are hindering that, and how can we change that outcome? That’s a very different way of looking at health. We continue every day to put thought to paper to show true impactful change, and I’m excited about that.
You’re building a new campus in the West End. Tell us about that.
Passport Health Plan is building its headquarters along with a health and well-being campus, allowing services on our campus to holistically look at the person’s needs and health. That’s going to be at 18th and Broadway, and we’re very excited about that. The YMCA is our sister right across the street.
We’re bringing our entire staff along with our partnerships with Evolent and other community partners so that campus is going to be an economic driver. And we’re excited about that because we’re not just looking at the well-being of our employees and impacting the community, but how can folks access us, get to us, find opportunities for eating and doing different things. I’m really excited because I don’t think people have seen that type of hustle and bustle in the area for a long time. And our friend the YMCA is building their new location at 1700 W. Broadway, which is a beautiful opportunity for fitness and well-being. I’m just excited about 18th and Broadway altogether. I think it’s going to change the whole dynamic.
Why is your job important?
Because if I don’t do it, who will? It’s our duty to do what’s right for the people of this world. There has to be an equity conversation. We can’t advance as a country or as a city if we don’t own the problems we have.
Do you have any mentors?
My sister. I think that mentors aren’t just the people who are leading you, but they’re the best friends who are there to cope with you. I talk to her three times a day. We hang out every weekend. She and I have a great relationship, and I don’t know what I would do if I went a day without talking to her.
Mark Carter is Passport’s CEO. He is so genuine and well-respected. I will say that he is the most kind-hearted, humble person I’ve ever met in my life. He always leads with positive intent. He taught me that no good deed goes unpunished. He said, “It’s because you are always going to do the right thing, and someone is always going to fault you for it. But just know that what you’re doing is the good work.”
I don’t think that I would have been able to excel in the span of time that I have had it not been for my boyfriend pushing me in a positive way and reinforcing that I am good enough. It’s different with someone who is along this journey with you and not intimidated by your success. He is a huge mentor to me. I hold his advice in such high regard because I know that it comes from a place of love.
What’s your favorite place on earth?
Walt Disney World in Orlando. I go every year. It’s like the most magical place on earth. It’s not, but it is. I’ve got the lanyard, I’ve got the ears … it’s so ridiculous. It is a cult … it’s an expensive cult.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m a very accomplished Indian dancer. I’m classically trained in Bharatanatyam. That’s a storytelling form of Indian dance, and it has a very intricate way that you position your hands and the beat of your feet. I met Miss Universe and danced for her. I think people would be surprised [to know that] considering how beautifully heavy I am.
What’s your dream vacation?
I’ve always wanted to travel to India and trace back where we come from. That’s really important to me.
What’s your best advice?
Have a voice, and don’t be scared to use it. Based on the current climate, I think it’s important that you use your voice and not be scared of the turmoil or repercussions.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Glitter, my favorite color; unicorns, my favorite animal; and moscato
Thank you, Keisha! And thank you to Gretchen Bell for these beautiful photos.
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