Rural Success Stories. We could be one, too

Klamath County, Oregon.  Algoma, Wisconsin.  Allen County, Kansas.  Williamson, West Virginia.  Garrett County, Maryland.

What, you might ask, do these places have in common?  What they have in common is that they are all rural communities that have been recognized as Culture of Health Prize winners by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest health-related philanthropic organization in the United States.

These communities have decided that the status quo was not good enough and that they wanted a better future for themselves and their families.  They all took different paths to change, but the one thing they all did was to decide, as communities, to try.

Willamson has a lot in common with Madisonville.  It’s a coal town that had to adapt to a changing economy.  To fight the decline of their community, the citizens got together and identified their needs and, just as importantly, their available resources.  They formed a community betterment corporation called “Sustainable Williamson” to coordinate their resources and their efforts to improve community healthcare, housing, energy sustainability, education and tourism.  If you read the Sustainable Williamson action plan (just Google it), it reads almost like you could scratch out “Williamson” and write in “Madisonville”.

In Allen County, they had lost over half of their population over the years.  They had no hospital and the nearest one was barely hanging on.  Many places had little access to decent food.  Their population was aging and unthealthy.  The people of Allen County decided that wasn’t the future they wanted.  They formed “Thrive Allen County”, a community corporation to address issues of health and wellness, recreation, education and economic development.  Their leader acknowledges that Allen County isn’t a wealthy place, but its bet asset is its people.  The people of Allen County voted a sales tax increase to support a bond issue to build a small hospital.  A local economic development group built some new apartments.  People went door-to-door to get signatures on a petition to get a grocery store chain to build a store in town to give people local access to fresh food.  People supported a citizen opening up a restaurant serving healthy food so people would have options aside from unhealthy fast food.

Volunteers built trail networks to encourage people to get out and exercise.  The school district set up a “Food Bus” that takes breakfast and lunch to low-income neighborhoods during the summer.  Kids come in, get a meal and have a chance to read a book.  They set up a health fair/school enrollment fair so kids could get physicals, immunizations, eyeglasses, school supplies and so on before the school year starts.  They set up community gatherings where the more well-off citizens could sit down with some of the lower-income folks just to chat and get to know one another.

In Klamath County, their economy turned south in the 1970’s as the timber industry slowed down.  They are dealing with challenges like poor transportation options, substance abuse, access to food, low graduation rates and limited access to healthcare.  They set up the “Healthy Klamath Coalition” to address their needs.

They set up programs to help people in low-income areas build up resilience and better mental health by fostering connections among the people in the communities.  They worked with local higher education institutions to introduce healthcare professionals to rural places.  The Klamath Regional Health Equity Coalition was formed to work on issues of poverty, lack of access to care, lack of opportunity and social isolation.  They put together a “Social Exclusion Simulation” so people could experience what it is like to be subjected to some of the pressures and injustices some of their people deal with daily.  The city government made improving low-income neighborhoods a priority.  The town built a collaborative space for health-related needs, where mental health workers, physicians, social workers, dentists and so on gather in one place to help people who have problems getting to many different places for their needs.  They started programs to monitor the success of students and to celebrate graduations.  Now all their high school graduates go on to college or vocational training.

These are just a few communities that have success stories to tell.  Google “RWJF Culture of Health Prize” to read more.  A few things should be, I hope, obvious to you at this point.  All these communities had issues as bad or worse than some that we are facing here.  As is the case here, their strongest assets are their people.  They didn’t have a lot of resources—in fact, we are way ahead of some of these communities in terms of available resources.  These places were doing good things, just as we are, but there was no collaborative vision of where to go or how to get there.  Just like here, a lot of people thought that the problems were just too big to fix and that people wouldn’t be willing to change.  In each community success story, the naysayers were wrong.

We have so much going for us here in Hopkins County and the surrounding region.  We just need to unify as one people—the people of Hopkins County and decide that we are no longer going to be satisfied with what we have.  We can be better.  Every single one of us can be better.  Together, we can build a future that our grandparents would be proud of and that our kids want to be part of.  Allen County is certainly no better than we are.  They’re in Kansas, for goodness sake.  We can make for ourselves whatever future we decide we want.  We’ve already made a good start.  Our community health coalition is moving forward, but there is much more that needs to be done. Now we just need to stand up, stand together and start working collaboratively to make a new tomorrow.  All these towns, and many other like them are doing it.  So can we.  I’m ready.  Anybody with me?