Working Together Creatively to Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

September 4, 2012

Twenty years ago George Sedlacek, the Director of Community Health in Marquette County, MI, was lambasted in the local news as a “health Nazi.” Now retired but still active as a community leader, he’s being hailed as a “health hero.” What accounts for the transformation?  Sedlacek will tell you he didn’t change; the community’s culture changed.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was once an area of heavy mining and logging. People got their exercise on the job through hard, physical labor. But while their muscles were strong, they were also heavy smokers and drinkers. With the demise of both the mining and logging industries, most people in the area began to live a sedentary lifestyle, exacerbated by the construction of Highway 41 which effectively divided where people lived from where they worked and went to school, encouraging a reliance on vehicles for transportation. As a result, obesity increased, and combined with a culture of heavy smoking and drinking, the result was lowered life expectancy. This is the culture George Sedlacek has long been involved in changing from the inside out.
When he retired last year, Sedlacek knew he wasn’t going to stop working on health issues in his community. But he also knew that tackling unhealthy behaviors was going to require a change in the way the community thought about health.
“I knew we needed to look for lots of community partners to collaborate on this,” Sedlacek said. “The issues are bigger than one agency can take care of."
The first key partner was the YMCA, led by Lisa Coombs-Gerou.  “The health department and YMCA used to go separate ways,” says Ms. Coombs-Gerou, “but now we combine efforts and resources, and we’ve done things we’ve never been able to do before.”  
As for bringing in other partners, the two community leaders determined that forming a 501c3 coalition was not the way to go in rural Michigan. “Here, people belong to so many different organizations,” explains Sedlacek, “and we didn’t want folks to have to give up their identities.” Rather than creating a new organization, the Marquette County partnership calls itself the Active Living Task Force, and is more a cross between networking and a coalition. “We got buy in,” says Sedlacek, “because our purpose is to help them achieve their goals.” Turf issues will always be present, both agree, but they look for ways to create win-wins. The key is to find the commonalities between missions. Some of the Active Living Task Force’s initiatives include: 
  • Increasing access to healthy food: A local Headstart program also operates Meals-on-Wheels and wanted help for achieving their goals of improving health in low income areas. The Task Force partnered with the group to build five new community gardens. 
  • Bike racks on buses: The “Healthy Way Challenge,” funded by Blue Cross, supported adding bike racks to buses.
  • Creating biking and walking paths: Seven municipalities are working together to create a 48 mile hike/bath path.
  • Weight loss challenges: A local hospital, the YMCA and a local newspaper collaborated to create a fitness/weight loss challenge between four municipalities, which included support from personal trainers and weekly community meetings.
  • Extending the vegetable growing season: Using money from a statewide tobacco win, a community foundation is supporting the development of three school “hoop houses” that will enable children to eat healthy year-round.

Coombs-Gerou points out that each individual organization might have a small pot of funds, but when they join together they can accomplish a lot more. In fact, funders often require collaboration in order to receive matching funds, so this helped individual partners “give up a little of the pie” in order to “share in a larger pie for all.” Getting a Kellogg grant was testimony to this approach, and solidified everyone’s commitment to “giving up a little to get more.”

Another key win was getting an ACHIEVE grant in 2009; this gave the team access to tools, technical support and connections with other communities around the country. When the 2010 County Health Rankings were released, it was a perfect time to ask more local partners to join up. Significantly, a local news reporter came on board and began writing about the good things the Active Living Task Force was doing. According to Sedlacek, “the free PR/advertising was invaluable.” 
That same reporter then proceeded to transform her own sedentary habits and became an advocate for leading a healthier lifestyle. Today she runs 5 miles to the Task Force meetings, and 5 miles home, not only because she wants to, but because with easier access to sidewalks and hike/bike paths, she can. As Sedlacek and Coombs-Gerou say, “We’re making the healthy choice the easy choice.”
(To learn more about the Active Living Task Force, see the Marquette County Health Rankings in Action webinar.)