Just like a woman looking into the mirror, we in Allen County focus on our flaws.
We see litter, dilapidated buildings, broken- down cars.
So it was a welcome surprise Tuesday when a group of outsiders came to tell us we are, well, beautiful.
“Allen County, you are a winner!” exclaimed Dr. Richard Besser, in formally announcing Allen County is one of eight communities awarded the 2017 Culture of Health Prize by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The prize puts Allen County on the map along with now 34 other communities who are successfully working to create a healthy place to live by bringing new jobs, new educational and recreational opportunities, and better healthcare opportunities to the area.
“Perhaps more importantly,” Besser said, “you will have your story told to inspire others and help them learn from you. And you will be connected in myriad ways to a network of other communities and leaders from across the nation.”
Besser is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated solely to improving health and well-being for Americans. The Culture of Health prizes have been awarded since 2013.
Along with Besser, healthcare leaders from across the state joined in Tuesday’s celebration that included tours of the construction site of G&W Foods, the Elm Creek Community Garden and the Lehigh Portland Trails. In the afternoon, Besser participated in a community conversation with about 25 Allen Countians involved in various aspects of public service.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran also addressed the morning crowd gathered in front of the Thrive Allen County office on Iola’s downtown square.
By taking a quick break from his Congressional duties in Washington, D.C., Moran said, “I’m better off being at a place where people can actually find something to do about healthcare.”
Moran congratulated those gathered “for working together to help other people live healthier lives. That helps us all. You are not only a role model for Washington, D.C., but a role model for communities across the state.”
“This award,” Moran said, “speaks volumes about the people who decided to make a difference for their community.”
ALLEN County was selected from more than 200 communities who underwent a rigorous application process.
“Right when I read your application, I scrawled in big letters ‘WINNER’ across the top,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk of the University of Wisconsin. Van Dijk is the director of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps and the RJWF Culture of Health Prize.
Communities use the national health rankings as a marker in fighting things such as chronic diseases, smoking, obesity and poverty. Consistently, Allen County ranks in the lowest quartile in the state for advancing against such things.
“You demonstrated a community spirit that says ‘we’re all in this together,’” Van Dijk said. “That ‘nobody is going to tell rural Kansans that we can’t get something done. Yeah, things might be tough, but we’re scrappy.’
“You showed that you have community systems, like the community garden, that not only creates a garden but is also a place to socialize, a place to provide healthy food for people who might not be able to afford it, and an entity that teaches people life skills.
“That’s just one example of how you take one thing across so many levels.”
Van Dijk looked across to Ray Maloney, LaHarpe, who helped spearhead the Regional Rural Tech Center.
“You showed us you can say, ‘I’m going to cut through the red tape of educational bureaucracy and we’re going to get something done because we need jobs here.’
“And jobs are about health.
“We also were impressed with the way you use your resources. The way you use data. The benevolence of your community.”
MANY OF the institutions that help fund local initiatives were represented at Tuesday’s event by their presidents and CEOs including Dr. Robert St. Peter of the Kansas Health Institute, Virginia Barnes of Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Blue Health Initiatives, Billie Hall of the Sunflower Foundation, Dr. Bridget McCandless of the Greater Healthcare Foundation of Kansas City, Steve Coen of the Kansas Health Foundation, Brenda Sharpe of the Reach Healthcare Foundation, Krista Postai of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas and Ashley Goss, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Also attending were state representatives Kent Thompson, LaHarpe, and Monica Murnan, Pittsburg, who serves on the Health and Services Committee.
These leaders attended a “working lunch” to share their perspectives on the challenges that face Allen County.
Postai, of the Pittsburg-based CHCSEK, explained its presence in Allen County came from an invitation by Thrive Allen County because a needs assessment study showed a shortage of dentists in the area.
From a dental clinic in 2007, the clinic expanded in 2013 to medical clinic adding Drs. Glen Singer and Brian Wolfe to staff.
“Partners for 30 years, they called me and said they were tired of telling people they couldn’t help them because they didn’t have money. They didn’t want to open another chart to see they couldn’t help someone because they had an outstanding bill.”
As a federally qualified health center, the CHCSEK treats patients on a sliding scale according to their income.
“We provide care regardless of someone’s ability to pay,” Postai said.
In order to accommodate mental health and pharmacy services, the clinic plans to start construction of a new 15,000-square-foot facility on North State Street later this year.
The CHC clinic tends to more than half of the county’s population, Postai said. Of those, about 95 percent are living at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below.
“The shift is definitely coming, though,” Postai said. “We’re moving to more preventative care. We’re shifting from the sickness model to the wellness model. It’s so exciting. I can’t tell you how much the staff is enjoying catching people before they are in dire circumstances.
At the dental clinic we used to primarily pull teeth. Now we are able to restore teeth because we’re catching people earlier and helping them learn preventive measures.
We’re able to give people their smiles back.”
“Allen County has many opportunities for improvement,” Postai said, noting the high rate of drug overdoses here. “We see an opportunity for intervention here. It’s a nationwide problem. The difference here is that you have people who identify the problem and then say what can we do about it.
“We love data,” Postai said, to which Besser asked how they use it, specifically.