Walker County, Alabama, is a rural county only 35 minutes northwest of Birmingham, with easy access to urban areas across the south, including Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis. Along the waterfront of Lewis Smith Lake and Black Warrior River, the county includes many parks and recreational opportunities, but when it comes to the health of its residents, challenges persist: Walker County is ranked among the least healthy in the state according to the County Health Rankings.
Nearly a decade ago, the Walker Area Community Foundation (WACF), a local grant-making organization, started looking at the poor health outcomes and were determined to address them with a more holistic approach. Around 2013, WACF joined forces with United Way of Central Alabama, Capstone Rural Health Center, and Brookwood Baptist Health System to form the Walker County Health Action Partnership.
Paul Kennedy, President of WACF, has been part of the partnership from the beginning. In 2016, Kennedy and Action Learning Coach Ericka Burroughs-Girardi met at an annual health conference in Jefferson County, Alabama. After learning that Burroughs-Girardi coached in Jefferson County, Kennedy approached her and said, “We need somebody like you.” Their coaching experience began soon thereafter.
Burroughs-Girardi recounted, “The [Health Action Partnership] wasn’t really sure how they could bring their resources together in a more coordinated fashion with greater impact,” and the coaching process intentionally provided them with the space to make partners feel like they were heard, and, ultimately, improve resident health.
Burroughs-Girardi met virtually with representatives of the Health Action Partnership once a month. During these meetings, the team focused on aligning their budget, partnership missions, and goals. But that’s not where Burroughs-Girardi’s intensive coaching started or ended. “To have somebody externally with credibility and reputation forcing us to really look at how we work together--that's what made a difference,” shared Kennedy.
During the coaching period, Burroughs-Girardi:
- Requested that the Health Action Partnership take inventory of their vision, values and shared commitment to action. Together, they created their Team Blueprint to guide their effort, expand the path to access, and speak about their mementos--things that are “near and dear” to peoples’ hearts, hearing their perspective, and finding ways to honor it.
- Gave the Health Action Partnership the permission to try. “We didn’t know what we could and couldn’t do, and [Burroughs-Girardi] told us that we could do it. There’s power in giving people permission to try,” shared Kennedy.
- Planted seeds for the future of health success. One of the most helpful exercises was to identify what initiatives to stop and which ones to start based on what impact they had on the community. Some efforts around healthy foods, farmers’ markets, community gardens were centered on important efforts, but they didn’t have the measurable impact the Partnership hoped for.
Four years later, it’s clear those seeds that Burroughs-Girardi helped plant that soon begin to flourish into policy and systems changes. These changes took time, but they positioned the partnership to make the changes that were necessary in Walker County.
Some of the changes made and continue to be worked on in Walker County include:
- Investing in early childhood health. The Health Action Partnership has helped to embed The University of Alabama at Birmingham - Nurse Family Partnership into Walker County’s Family Resource center. Now, families can receive not only prenatal care, but support until their children are toddlers. The Health Action Partnership is also working to make sure that families use Alabama’s state-wide Head Start pre-K program for the years to come. WACF is helping to get more Early/Head Start and First Class Pre-K programs off the ground, and he’s implored the business community to care. “That is going to set those children up for success for their life,” shared Kennedy as he discussed what these programs mean to the Walker County’s future workforce.
- Creating an on-demand transportation service. 30% of doctor visits were missed due to lack of transportation. In response, the Walker County Community Action Agency developed their own rural transit system to help people get from their homes to their appointments. Local health facilities have even started to provide prepaid trips for their patients so they can travel to get the care they need.
- Addressing addiction. More than two dozen agencies and organizations in Walker County came together to form the Healing Network. The group includes the law enforcement, mental and physical health community, and legal community. WCAF helped to create an almost-$500,000 endowment to support people facing addiction and to stop it before it starts. .
- Providing mental health support in schools. Walker County and Jasper City schools now have their own mental health coordinators. In addition to this new staff, teachers are trained to understand behavioral health and social-emotional learning. They’re also working to build school-based health clinics.
- Building a coordinated care group. One of Walker County’s newest health programs, the coordinated care group partners pharmacies, skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, and home health care to prevent hospital readmissions and keep residents healthy.
So, when she caught up with Kennedy five years later, Burroughs-Girardi was amazed, but not completely surprised, to hear the Health Action Partnership’s impact.. “You can see some little, minor changes over 12 months of coaching, but you don't really see the fruits of your labor until a few years out,” shared Burroughs-Girardi. “It takes not only the alignment of resources...but it also takes a commitment to setting up a new system.” Kennedy, along with the Health Action Partnership and the rest of Walker County, did just that.
Kennedy explained that from their very first meeting, coaching support has made a world of difference for Walker County. “All of these improvements came out of our coaching because [Burroughs-Girardi] told us we could,” lauded Kennedy. She gave them permission to try. And the relationship was meaningful for both sides. “Coaching a community like Walker County, where people are truly invested...makes coaching actually a pleasure because...I knew I was planting [seeds],” recounted Burroughs-Girardi.