Wyandotte County is in the national spotlight again for its effort to shed its status as one of the unhealthiest counties in Kansas.
Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation produced a video highlighting the Healthy Communities Wyandotte initiative as a national model. The Princeton, N.J.-based foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted to public health.
And now the foundation and its partner, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, have designated Wyandotte County as one of two “learning laboratories” nationwide (along with a six-county initiative in central Michigan) to determine what works best in turning around an unhealthy community.
Each learning laboratory is receiving a $100,000 seed grant from the foundation, which Wyandotte County is augmenting with grant funds and county dollars to assure a two-year effort.
County Public Health Director Joe Connor said he’s to ready start after clearing a procedural hurdle Thursday night, when the Unified Government commissioners voted to accept the grant.
“We’re off and running,” he said.
The program’s coordinator, Caitlin McMurtry of the Kansas Health Institute, is scheduled to start working at the Wyandotte County Health Department on Monday.
A key component of the learning laboratory, Connor said, would be sounding out the community on which of the Healthy Communities Wyandotte recommendations to tackle first. Action teams have developed ideas in five areas: communications, education, environmental infrastructure, nutrition, and health services.
The recommendations include everything from including health literacy components to early childhood education to adding community gardens in areas that lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables
Healthy Communities Wyandotte began three years ago after the county came in last among the state’s 105 counties in health rankings produced by the Kansas Health Institute.
A year later, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Population Health Institute launched their state-by-state County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program. And each year, Wyandotte County has finished near the bottom among Kansas counties in that ranking as well.
In the latest rankings published in the spring, Wyandotte came in 97th out of 100 counties ranked.
Officials with the foundation and the institute said they want the rankings to stimulate the kind of community action that is underway in Wyandotte County. The learning laboratories are part of that effort, as is the “action center” portion of the county rankings Web site.
“The whole point is – you can throw data out there and throw messaging out there until you are blue in the face,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy director of the rankings and roadmap project at the institute.
“But what we really want to discover,” she said “are what are the key components we can share with other communities to say, if you have this, and if you have this, and if you have this, you’re a lot more likely to be successful in this than not.”
Van Dijk said she plans to be at a June 21 meeting in Wyandotte County when the commissioners expect to discuss Healthy Communities Wyandotte.
The institute and the foundation sought out Wyandotte County and the Michigan effort to be the first laboratories because they have been national leaders in using the health rankings to “catalyze action,” said Abbey Cofsky, a Robert Wood Johnson program officer.
There is money set aside for two more laboratories depending upon how the initial efforts go, she said.
Making that leap from talking the talk to walking the walk is really what the funders want to see.
“A lot of communities have gotten to this point, in looking at the data and setting priorities,” Van Dijk said. “But the real proof is whether you can turn that corner and take that plan into action.”
The Nutrition Action Team is making progress, said Bruce Chladny, Wyandotte County director for the Kansas State University Research and Extension. He chaired the nutrition committee.
For instance, he has banded together with some other nutrition activists to work with the local Board of Public Utilities on getting water access to community gardens. Success with that, he said, would make for a “small step to getting us to a healthier community.”
Word is spreading about Wyandotte County’s healthy community success, and later this month, Connor is hosting a delegation from Crawford County in southeast Kansas that wants to see how the lessons learned can help them.
Connor said it might take a generation before current efforts make a big enough dent to move Wyandotte County up in health rankings.
Van Dijk stressed that point as well. “This is not here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of work,” she said.