Situated along the Lake Michigan shoreline, 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Culture of Health Prize winner Algoma, Wisconsin is a thriving community of caring hearts and big ideas committed to building a Culture of Health. The residents, businesses, school district, and health providers recognize the connections between quality education, good health, and a strong local economy, while their youth are the driving force behind a shared commitment to helping all residents thrive. This rural city of 3,126 recently celebrated its Culture of Health Prize win, bringing together residents for a festive day recognizing the progress the community has made and brainstorming ideas for the future.
We sat down with Algoma’s Community Activator Teal VanLanen and Matt Trujillo, an RWJF program officer who attended the event, to learn more about the celebration, what the Culture of Health Prize means for Algoma, and how this rural community hopes to inspire others.
Last month, Algoma celebrated it’s 2017 Culture of Health Prize win – what was the mood of the event?
Teal VanLanen: There was an overwhelming sense of pride. It was humbling for people to recognize all the things we are doing. We had purposeful activities planned, including helping our community members identify and share their dreams which stemmed from a study we did that found our community has a dream deficit. We hope to inspire everyone to dream and accomplish those dreams.
How has Algoma helped empower residents to take control of their own health?
Matt Trujillo: It comes down to their Live Algoma initiative. They’re engaging members throughout the community – from the youth to older generations – to not only take control of their health as individuals but then to also engage in improving the health of their community.
Teal: We wanted to create a conversation that rallied everybody, so we asked our community members to complete a pledge on how they wanted to improve. We’re now over 1,000 pledges – people want to walk more, attend a religious service, reduce their debt. Asking people what they wanted helped engage them in the conversation about well-being and what that meant to them. In turn, these pledges help Live Algoma think about how to use available resources and fill gaps.
What impresses you most about Algoma’s Culture of Health journey?
Matt: Their willingness to engage their youth as equal partners – they recognize there is a lot of energy and wisdom there. Also, the way Algoma has been tackling workforce training and employment sticks out. They gave me a tour of the school and the Fab Lab – the way they are addressing employment is impressive. One of the things that was very clear is Algoma’s strong sense of community. The attendance at the celebration was fantastic, people were very engaged in the activities. The pride they felt towards their community was quite evident.
How does Algoma engage its youth and next generation of leaders?
Teal: Youth are in everything we do! About two years ago, we talked about equity and who was not at the table and our youth were taking a backseat – we did a lot of the decision-making for them. We had to flip that conversation. Now, we involve our youth in all our decisions. You can see youth on our Live Algoma activation teams and at city council meetings. When given that space – they’re unstoppable.
Why do you think engagement is so important to building a Culture of Health?
Matt: A Culture of Health can’t be built alone. The more brains, the better; the more hands, the better. It really requires everybody participating. A small community like Algoma gets that. They recognize that to move the needle, they have to take advantage of the human resources they have.
How do you hope to inspire others looking to build a Culture of Health in their community and how can other communities learn from Algoma?
Teal: We are passionate about rural communities. We know from experience that funding and resources are always an obstacle, but we hope we can connect with other rural communities in the country [and show] that there are possibilities. Our hope is to have more conversations with those communities on how they can think differently or creatively to get what they need.
Matt: First, take advantage of all your people – get their insights, get them engaged. They have ideas, they have solutions. Second, it’s important when you think about health not just to think about healthcare. Algoma really understands the role employment, education and other factors play in health and it’s something they tackle head-on. Finally, Algoma did a great job of engaging local business and their corporate sector. That’s something that tends to get misrepresented in rural communities: that they don’t have a vibrant or robust corporate sector. They do – it just looks different!