Five Questions With: Carolyn Belisle

The BlueAngel Community Health Grants initiative is a competitive grant program that awards funds to organizations working to address critical health issues in Rhode Island. Since its creation in 2002, the program has awarded more than $6 million to local organizations, and in 2019, it shifted its focus to prioritize organizations that improve access to safe, stable and affordable housing throughout Rhode Island.

Carolyn Belisle is the managing director of corporate social responsibility at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. She discusses how the program has evolved over the years, some of its past grantees and its future direction.

PBN: What is the BlueAngel Community Health Grants program? How and when can organizations apply for it?

BELISLE: BlueAngel Community Health Grants, the cornerstone of our community investment activities, allow BCBSRI to advance its vision by addressing critical health issues in Rhode Island in partnership with community–based agencies working to improve the health of Rhode Islanders.

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Every July, we invite nonprofit agencies to respond to our request for proposals with a letter of intent. The RFP outlines the specific public health issue we will address through this funding. During the next several months, we review applications and visit finalist sites.

Grant decisions are made by community stakeholders, not BCBSRI staff, and are announced in January. Grantees are eligible for a second consecutive year of funding if successful in their first year and are then asked to take off two years before applying again.

PBN: The BlueAngel Community Health Grants program turned 20 this year. What has made the program successful and has allowed it to continue for two decades?

BELISLE: It’s humbling to reflect on the accomplishments of the community partners we’re fortunate to support. We’ve grown from awarding $144,000 to seven nonprofits in year one, to $740,000 for 11 organizations in 2023.

A key to the program’s success is that we remain agile and responsive to community needs and to our nonprofit partners. In 2021, for example, we added a “well-being award” to grant awards for each agency, in direct response to alarming data from a study the Grantmakers Council of Rhode Island and United Way of Rhode Island [Inc.] conducted.

In the survey, 86% of nonprofits reported that some or all of their staff were experiencing emotional exhaustion; 78% shared that some or all of their staff were burned out; and 74% responded that some or all of their staff were experiencing physical exhaustion.

To support the nonprofit sector, BCBSRI awarded each 2021 grantee an additional $5,000 to address employee well-being. Grantees used these funds in a variety of ways, including supporting staff training on burnout, team outings and staff self-care programs.

Our success also derives from the fact that we want to be more than a check writer. We strive to be thought partners and bring additional resources to bear, including providing volunteers and offering in-kind support. We ask grantees to guide the work and tell us what they need rather than taking a prescriptive approach.

PBN: In 2019, the program made housing the sole focus of the grants and since then it has invested $2.1 million in affordable housing. Why has it become particularly important to support organizations working to address housing concerns?

BELISLE: It’s vital for us to be responsive to the needs of our communities. Five years ago, in partnership with Brown University’s School of Public Health, we launched the RI Life Index, a survey of Rhode Islanders’ perceptions of their quality of life centered around the social determinants of health, including access to safe, affordable, stable housing. Every year since 2019, housing has emerged as the most pressing issue facing Rhode Islanders.

While the evidence demonstrates housing as foundational to good health, unfortunately, we’ve seen index scores in this category decline as property values and interest rates have soared. Decadeslong lags in housing production plague our state and unacceptable inequities in housing access and ownership persist among racial groups. We’re using the entirety of this grant program to cast a wide net and better address a myriad of housing issues through a variety of interventions – housing production and preservation, eviction prevention, homebuyer education, case management for vulnerable populations, and more.

PBN: Can you share some success stories from past grantees?

BELISLE: With nearly 100 funded organizations over these many years, that’s a tough ask, but here are two illustrative examples:

Prior to our current focus on affordable housing, we sought to address the epidemic of childhood obesity, a precursor to chronic adult diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. One of these grants went to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank for its Raising the Bar on Nutrition program, a series of community cooking classes on how to make low-cost, healthy, vegetarian recipes, giving families the knowledge and skills to better prepare healthy, affordable foods.

Another grant went to Clínica Esperanza in 2010 as it was establishing a health clinic in Olneyville [in Providence] to provide bilingual and affordable primary care services to underserved communities. We supported the creation of the Navegantes program – positions for multilingual community navigators who help patients navigate the health system, communicate with their health care providers and coordinate care.

PBN: How do you envision the program evolving in the next five years?

BELISLE: I anticipate housing is an issue we will be tackling for the long haul; it’s a complex challenge. Additionally, I know we’ll continue to think about ways we can align this program’s funding priorities to our broader health equity strategy, which, in addition to addressing the social determinants of health, is focused on reducing disparities in maternal health and positively impacting the mental well-being of Rhode Island youths. Remaining responsive and agile will be critical as we work to end persistent health disparities and inequities.

In five years, I know we will continue to actively listen to better understand the needs and concerns in our communities and continue enabling organizations to do their best work to improve the health of Rhode Islanders.

Claudia Chiappa is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at