DAY IN MY LIFE IN MY HOMETOWN!
How Healthy Is Your Hometown?
What you can do to create a culture of health in your community – and win a prize for it.
By Ashley Welch
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Many communities face enormous health challenges for a variety of reasons: from socioeconomics and education to availability of affordable, nutritious food and access to open spaces. But counties across the country are finding creative ways to make wellness a priority shared by residents, businesses, health professionals, educators, and local government.
“Change to improve health can happen in so many ways in a community,” says Julie Willems Van Dijk, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (UWPHI). “You can start the conversation anywhere – with your friends and family, with your co-workers, with your neighbors, or with community agencies and leaders.”
UWPHI and the non-profit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) collaborate on the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program to measure the health of over 3,000 counties. In 2013, the first annual RWJF Culture of Health Prize was presented to communities that demonstrated “their own unique journey toward better health.” Winning communities receive a ,000 prize awarded to a local charity.
According to RWJF senior program officer Abbey Cofsky, the prize “celebrates communities that have placed a priority on health and represent solutions-driven leadership at its finest.”
Here is a look at three of this year’s winners.
One of the poorest metro areas in the country, Brownsville faces many health concerns as a community. Eighty percent of its population is overweight or obese, and one-third lives with diabetes.
In 2001, the University of Texas School of Public Health (UTSPH) began collecting health data on Brownsville’s residents. UTSPH formed a community advisory board of more than 200 organizations and individuals to work with city officials on the Imagine Brownsville plan, a long-term strategy to address environmental, health, and business needs.
“Our overall framework was that we wanted to make changes that both focused on helping individuals get healthier but also creating infrastructure and broader environmental changes to help the population move toward being more active,” says Belinda Reininger, DrPH, an associate professor at UTSPH-Brownsville.
One project Reininger points to is the Belden Trail, a mile-long paved bike path on the site of an abandoned rail line. “Our residents now have a beautiful trail that they can go safely on,” she says.
Another initiative is the Bike Barn, where young people learn about healthy living while repairing bicycles. Kids can earn their own bike through volunteering. “I watch them learn new skills they didn’t have before and slowly take on more responsibility with every task that they are challenged with,” says Eva Garcia, 25, who has volunteered at the Bike Barn for over a year. “I also see them biking more with friends in the neighborhoods, enjoying the freedom they get from riding a bicycle.”
Brownsville hosts an annual 16-week weight loss competition that draws more than a thousand people, according to Reininger. The city and its businesses support the challenge by offering free gym memberships, health screenings, and events like CycloBia, in which residents can move and play on car-free streets.
Spanish-speaking health workers, or promotoras, help educate Brownsville’s Hispanic population about healthcare services and disease prevention behaviors. “They knock on doors and talk to people about health issues, point them to the farmers market and give them vouchers to try fresh fruits and vegetables, tell them about free exercise classes,” Reininger says.
Williamson, West Virginia
According to America’s Health Rankings, West Virginia is the fifth unhealthiest state in the country. Williamson leads the state in rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Five years ago, community leaders decided to do something about that, and the result was the Sustainable Williamson program.
“As far as our approach to improving health outcomes in the community, we realized it couldn’t just be clinical care but that it also had to involve a lot of community engagement,” says Jenny Hudson, director at the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition in Williamson.
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In 2011, the city built a free clinic, the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, which was designated a federally qualified health center in fall 2013. Community engagement initiatives include monthly themed 5K races, farmers markets, a lunch walk program, and community gardens where families can grow their own produce. Residents share their experiences by posting to the community’s HealthySelfies.org website.
The Health Innovation Hub is an event where local entrepreneurs present ideas for healthy businesses and connect with experts to help achieve those goals. One such entrepreneur is Williamson native Debbie Young, a retired teacher who will open a restaurant serving healthy dishes this fall. “We’re going to feature locally grown produce,” Young says. “We do lots of salads and make our own dressing. I’ve always cooked with fresh foods. It just tastes better.”
Durham, North Carolina
Despite being dubbed the “City of Medicine” for its healthcare business sector, Durham has faced high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and sexually transmitted diseases. In 2004, government agencies and community leaders formed the Partnership for a Healthy Durham to address these issues.
Under the Project Access program, more than 700 clinicians volunteered to see thousands of patients at clinics, pharmacies, and hospitals. “So many lives have been changed by being able to get the specialty care they need,” says Gayle Harris, director of the Durham County Department of Public Health.
The Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission has worked to extend sidewalks and bike trails, while Bull City Play Streets events have opened up city streets for outdoor physical activities. An empty plot of land has been converted into the 30-acre Farm Hub, where students can grow fruits and vegetables; and a Veggie Van delivers produce from local farmers markets to residents.
In 2012, Durham County passed a Board of Health Smoking Rule that prohibits smoking on city and county property as well as abutting sidewalks and bus stops. “We had an open period of time where the public could write in and tell us their opinions after the smoking rule passed,” Harris says. “While we got a few negative comments, most of the comments were very positive about the change."
Formula for Success
“Far too often, great plans are created and never put into action,” UWPHI’s Van Dijk says. So what makes a community-led health campaign successful? Here are some of Van Dijk’s thoughts:
- Partnership. “Because health is influenced by so many factors...it takes everyone working together,” she says.
- Vision. Van Dijk stresses the need for “a strong commitment and vision of the change you want to see, and how each party will invest time and resources to make that change happen.”
- Trust. “Listening to and including the voice of people who are most affected by poor health...builds trust and buy-in,” she says.
- Learningfrom success and failure. “Measuring your progress and sharing your successes widely,” is important, Van Dijk says.
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