By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An idea for healthier living has gotten some wheels.
Barboursville Elementary students Jillian Freeman and Olivia Turman dreamed up a mobile concession stand. Their rolling cart would sell wholesome food choices at the Cabell County village’s park and ballfield.
With help from parents, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker and Try This West Virginia, the girls have built the Wheelie Good Food Cart. It will debut at the fourth annual Try This Conference June 2-3 in Buckhannon.
Try This West Virginia’s goal is lofty: to lower the rates of chronic disease in the state. But its method is to utilize the grassroots technique: encouraging people to start healthy-living initiatives at the local level. It connects community activists with ideas, like Turman and Freeman, with organizations that can help make those projects a reality. It also gives mini-grants of up to $3,000 and training.
How is it going so far? Try This Co-director Kate Long said the organization has given out $300,000 in 155 mini-grants statewide in its four-year history. Some of the initial projects now have spin-offs, and some of the leaders have become workshop presenters, teaching what they learned.
Long said the organizations have leveraged the seed money into donations of matching funds from county commissions, supplies from local businesses and volunteer labor.
What kind of impact is it making?
“We’re getting back $8 for every $1 we award these teams,” she said. “West Virginians are ingenious and people find all kinds of great ways to leverage the dollars we give them.”
And where does the group get the money it awards? The short answer: from many different sources. The long answer: The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, Unicare Health Plan of WV, The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, The Highmark Foundation, Sisters of St. Joseph, Generous Promise Grant, The Bernard McDonough Foundation, American Heart Association, WVU Rural Health Initiative, WVU Health Sciences Center, West Virginia Development Office, Flex-E Grant Program, Appalachia Funders Network, plus the Try This conference registration dollars and sponsorship dollars.
More than 500 people signed up for this year’s conference and registration is closed.
Blooming where they’re planted
“This process is very empowering,” Long said. “You give people a little bit of resources and we connect them with people already doing what want to do to find how-to information.”The overall success of the Try This movement has to be measured by the individual projects it has spawned.Barboursville’s Wheelie Good Food Cart team got The Home Depot to give building supplies and an RV store donated a sink. The cart will sell prepackaged popcorn, homemade nut-free granola power bites, cups of fresh fruit, hummus and pretzels, homemade salsa with multigrain chips and yogurt frozen into Popsicle molds.
Customers can make their own smoothies if they power a blender by pedaling on a tandem bicycle. And that isn’t the only physical activity the cart will encourage.
“We noticed a lot of kids at the ballfield don’t have things to do while they’re waiting on their sisters’ or brothers’ teams to get done playing,” said Jenny Anderson, a VISTA worker who helped with the project. “They make a lot of trips to the concession stands. While they’re there we wanted to offer things like hula hoops, jump ropes and kick balls.”
At the same time the girls were cooking up their concession stand idea, Barboursville was building a community garden where residents grow food in planter boxes. The six boxes filled up quickly and there was a waiting list of people who wanted to participate. There are plans in the works already for things grown in the garden to be served on the Wheelie Good Food Cart.
When a company cut down trees to build a shopping plaza, Anderson followed the Try This methodology and started connecting dots.
She got West Edge Factory and the Coalfield Development Corp. in Huntington to mill them into lumber and build boxes for the garden and tables for a meeting space.
“Their students will be learning how to mill wood and turn them into tables and garden boxes,” Anderson said. “It’s another good partnership. All they wanted was publicity.”
Tiffany Tatum, a CPA and the mayor’s wife, suggested forming a nonprofit organization. The Village of Barboursville Community Wellness Council was born. There is a kids council that meets and sends two representative to the adult wellness council meetings.
“We call it the Village of Barboursville, so we say ‘It takes a village,’ and it has taken every one of us,” Anderson said.
The team hosted a dinner at the site of the now-closed Blackhawk Grill restaurant in Barboursville. The owner opened the space just for the fundraiser, which netted $12,000, thanks to local food vendors donating food and several silent auction items.
The team also is opening an art center and wellness space in downtown Barboursville to host meetings and classes on fitness and nutrition as well as art, whatever the need is for the community to get healthy.
“Wellness is a big subject,” Anderson said. “Music, STEM, anything a child could find a passion for, adults could find a passion for, is connected to wellness.”
And the way many small pieces have pulled together for the same cause in Barboursville is the way projects all over the state have blossomed.In four years, Try This is seeing communities looking forward to their next project as they finish the first and help neighboring towns get projects started.Lauren Kemp is one of the founders of The Wild Ramp local foods distribution hub in Huntington, which has helped local growers make more than $1 million since 2012. She has conducted workshops to teach other communities who want to start their own local food stores or distribution systems.
“Our motto is ‘It’s up to us,’ and people enthusiastically believe that,” Long said.
Projects spawned by Try This have had a direct impact on health, Long said, and that’s not just a warm, fuzzy serving of policy apple pie. Healthy communities can, in turn, impact economic development as companies seek to locate in communities with a healthy workforce and opportunities for outdoor adventure, Long said.
Try This started a new program called Second Stage Grants for organizations or communities that have done well with their initial mini-grants and are ready to share their expertise with other West Virginians. Kemp got one to help her work one-on-one as a consultant to the communities, such as Wheeling. She also help teams connect to others for assistance.
“Our matching funds are coming out of the Appalachian Regional Commission POWER Grant initiative,” Kemp said.
The ARC program has given $75.5 million to help communities hurt by the coal industry’s decline in 236 Appalachian counties to diversify and grow their economies. According to the ARC website, the money creates or retains more than 6,800 jobs and leverages an additional $142 million in investment while training workers and students in skills they can use in emerging sectors such as manufacturing, technology, entrepreneurship, and agriculture.
“A lot of these communities are interested in opening these types of stores because they don’t have a lot of economic options in their county,” Kemp said. “They’re losing a grocery store as the population declines. It’s part of a broader revitalization of the local economy.”
The movement has led to a spin-off that Long calls “Try This in a spiritual wrapper.”Joshua Sowardsis coordinator of West Virginia Healthy Bodies Healthy Spirits, a statewide network of churches that promote physical health as part of the Christian mission.“We try to connect everything to Scripture,” Sowards said, quoting Romans 12:1 which calls followers of Jesus Christ to give their bodies as a living sacrifice. “Part of that is taking care of our body so we can go out and do the things God has called us to do.”
“The health of a congregation is impacted by its values,” Sowards said. “The state is in bad shape: chronic disease, sedentary lifestyle, economic depression, lots of things have impacted in a negative way the health of our state.
In practice, HBHS could encourage churches to replace high-fructose corn syrup-laden refreshments with more wholesome snacks when serving children at Vacation Bible School or offer healthier covered dishes at a church brunch or other social function.
It might mean churches host healthy cooking, diabetes maintenance or exercise classes.
Sowards can consult with churches who want to take on a healthy project such as hosting a couch to 5K run or form a health ministry team. He has led 10 churches in a nutrition and exercise program called “The Daniel Plan” through a Try This mini-grant. The churches have turned around and taught the plan again to more people in their communities.
The spirit of cooperation and passing on knowledge threads through Try This projects statewide.
“Try This has grown in depth and sophistication,” Long said. “A true network has formed of people all over the state who teach each other and help each other and are tied together by the common desire to knock West Virginia off the worst disease lists.”
Ending the epidemic
What else can a healthy lifestyle help with in a community?The Monticello Avenue neighborhood in Clarksburg isn’t a bad place, but it was a place where, sometimes, bad things, like drug activity, happened.But that image now is changing because of community activism to build a garden, gathering space. and more.
It started with a boost from Try This West Virginia.
Then he bought it.
After that, he went to the Harrison County Family Resource Network to ask how he might turn it into something beautiful that would give back to the community. That’s when they started work on a community garden. FRN Director Elizabeth Shahan attended the Try This WV conference and received two $1,500 mini-grants for two gardens. They were able to leverage it into $150,000 in donations of time, effort and supplies, she said.
The garden, where families commit to growing food in planter boxes, has bloomed into much more.
“They were so pleased people started coming to Monticello Avenue for positive reasons,” said Long. “They not only did a garden, they did a little neighborhood park with picnic tables and a lending library and a barbecue grill.
“Four neighborhoods in Clarksburg have decided to make their own gardens, inspired by what Monticello Avenue did.”
Shahan said they have revitalized the foot bridge that connects two avenues to each other across the river, which has made the community walker-friendly, revitalized sidewalks, enhanced the park equipment and resurfaced the local basketball court outside.
“It is our dream to establish affordable housing options in the area,” she said.
The project keeps growing. Now a full steering committee, not just the FRN and city residents, leads the project, Shahan said.
And the work may even be impacting the area’s drug problem.
“We got involved with Mateen’s project because we saw the opportunity to combat drug abuse and prevent drug use,” Shahan said. “One of the strategies to deter that kind of delinquent activity is to change the environment.
“If the residents show interest and investment in the community and their own property and each other, it deters drug activity from occurring or helps to engage those people who have been affected by drugs and alcohol.”
Long said Try This organizers realize the physical activity and healthy food they are promoting as ways to lower chronic disease rates also lower a community’s risk of drug abuse.
“There’s considerable research to support it,” she said. “When you get young people in particular involved in activities that they can be passionate about and that bring them in contact with other young people, then they aren’t sitting around saying, ‘There’s nothing to do, let’s do drugs.’”
Long said the body’s chemistry is different when a person is active.
“It fights depression, and depression and drug use are tightly linked,” she said.
Shahan said the only measurable evidence of impact on the area’s drug problem is the number of referrals to resources that help addicts.
“If they know someone who is suffering from addiction, there are resources to help that person,” she said. “We want them to call us and we’ll get those people connected with services. We have made 10-12 different referrals to the Help 4 WV helpline.”
The project also has grown community spirit.
“The garden encourages families and residents to come out of their houses and engage and learn about and discuss ways that they can continue to give back and improve Monticello,” Shahan said. “It isn’t known as a drug avenue; it’s known for its garden, recreation spaces, its beauty, and its people.”
She adds that its success is thanks to everyone who worked on it.
“It’s not something we could have ever done without the partners collaborating or the community involved,” Shahan said. “It took all of us to make it happen. We’re not doing this to a community, we’re doing it with one.”
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