Improving the Health and Well-Being of Southeast Kansas

March 10, 2011

Nearly 180,000 people live in the nine counties of Southeast Kansas (SEK) region including Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson, and Woodson Counties.  People choose SEK as their home because of the quality of life that comes from living in small towns, the strong sense of community, and the overall natural beauty.  Despite the overall quality of life in SEK, the 2009 Kansas County Health Rankings released by the Kansas Health Institute, illustrated that this nine county region in southeastern Kansas was the least healthy region in the state.  The region bore this same distinction when the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute released its County Health Rankings in 2010.

Thrive Allen County (Thrive) is a well regarded local nonprofit  that works to improve the quality of life in Allen County by focusing on health, wellness,  recreation and education conditions and by engaging people and institutions around a common vision for the future.  When Thrive Allen County Director, David Toland, saw the Rankings for his region of the state, he knew it was bigger than his own county.  According to David, “Everybody from a Ph.D. to a third grader understands what it means to be ranked at the bottom of the state.  Out of necessity, and out of a sense of pride, the Rankings lit a fire under our region to do better.” As David was trying to figure out where and how to develop a region-wide community health initiative, the Kansas Health Institute placed a call to leaders in the region and offered to help.   As a result, the Southeast Kansas (SEK) Regional Health Coalition was born.

As a first step, the SEK Regional Health Coalition hosted two regional health summits – one in April 2010 in Iola, KS and one in August 2010 in Parsons, KS.  The first summit led to the formation of a steering committee for the Coalition that included representation from each of the nine counties, including six health department directors, a county commissioner, a county wellness coalition chairperson and a Constituent Services Representative for a Kansas congresswoman.   To help the work of the SEK Regional Health Coalition, the Kansas Leadership Center offered to provide mentoring to each of the steering committee members for a period of three to four months in order to provide enhanced leadership skills and the long-term development of community leaders.

Since its creation in the Spring of 2010, the SEK Regional Health Coalition developed a better understanding of the current health concerns of their communities, identified common regional priorities, created a plan for accomplishing their goals, and is implementing evidence-based strategies to improve the overall health of the southeast Kansas region.

In developing an approach to improve the health and well-being of Southeast Kansas, the Coalition was faced with the common tension between those who wanted to “just do something now” with those who wanted to plan out every step before taking action.  What SEK Regional Health Coalition found out is that both approaches were right.  As a result, SEK Regional Health Coalition is working on parallel tracks – taking immediate action while concurrently developing the shared vision, mission, and overall structure of the SEK Regional Health Coalition.

Working closely with Thrive and KHI, the SEK Regional Health Coalition are developing and implementing “quick win” projects to build enthusiasm for the Coalition’s work.  Their quick wins include planning a community-wide SEK Meltdown (a nine county 10-week weight loss program) and a nine county seat belt initiative targeted to high school students.  And in December 2010, the Kansas Health Institute was notified that it would receive a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement an evidence-based program to reduce obesity in the SEK region.

This region of the country is breaking new ground in working to improve health on a regional basis by building synergy between similar, yet diverse communities.  Keeping many partners involved is hard work, but the residents of these nine counties are determined to make a difference in the health of their citizens.  According to David Toland, “The Rankings allowed us to reach all sectors--business, education, government, faith--and rally them to put aside history and work toward a shared vision of a healthier future. We needed a catalyst for action, and we got it when the Rankings were released.”