Improving community health and how one Southeast Kansas county approached that was the topic for Thursday’s SHIFT Labette County meeting.
The meeting took place at the Kansas State Southeast Research and Extension Center in Parsons. Lisse Regehr, president and CEO of Thrive Allen County, spoke about the organization that works to improve residents’ health and well being.
Thrive began 11 years ago. SHIFT Labette started in 2018 as a response to the county’s place in the annual health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 2019, Labette County was ranked 101st out of 105 counties in Kansas in overall health. The news is actually worse, however, because three counties didn’t get rated for one reason or another so Labette County finished next to last.
Allen County finished 38th in Kansas and in 2017 was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation culture of health prize winner. Iola is the first Kansas community to get this award. The award reflected changes in the county that improved its health ranking from 94th in Kansas just eight years ago.
“So we were on the completely wrong end of that spectrum,” she said.
Moving that ranking up was difficult.
Thrive began digging into the health ranking data and creating programs and events that would change the health culture.
When people think of rural America, they may see a Norman Rockwell painting of citizens sitting at the town square visiting. The reality in Southeast Kansas counties is entrenched generational poverty and citizens making bad decisions for food, drink and life choices, including drug use.
“How do we shift a cultural mindset that tomorrow is going to be worse than today and change it to tomorrow will be better than today? Because they have to believe that,” Regehr said.
Thrive focuses on health, wellness, recreation, education and economic development. The organization started with a director in 2007 and now it has a staff of 10 and three interns. Regehr said Thrive wants Allen County to be the healthiest rural community in Kansas.
Improving healthy living options were an early focus — community events and building walking/biking trails. The more difficult issues, including poverty, housing, drug and alcohol abuse, are being addressed now.
Roads in Allen County were not bicycle friendly. Bike lanes were the goal, but this did not work in Iola, so the organization sought bike-friendly roads that had symbols reminding drivers to share the road with a cyclist. The city supported this.
Regehr suggested SHIFT Labette start with honest community conversations about what communities want.
Thrive visited Allen County communities to ask that question.
Elsmore is a town of 68 people south of Moran in Allen County. Thrive planned a town hall and 45 people showed up. After introductions and sharing the organization’s vision, Thrive asked Elsmore citizens what they wanted to see in their community. No one spoke initially. Eventually, someone asked if Thrive could get the ditches mowed. While that’s not Thrive’s mission, the organization called the county and the county agreed to mow the ditches around Elsmore. This helped build community trust.
The next time Thrive visited Elsmore, someone asked about a missing stop sign at a dangerous intersection. Thrive called the county again and the stop sign returned.
The third time Thrive visited Elsmore, someone asked about setting up a flu clinic in the community.
“If your community is your mission and their health is your vision, then when they ask, or request like we got, you figure out how to get that done and put those deposits in the trust bank,” Regehr said.
These interactions start positive community conversations because Thrive listened and responded.
Regehr shared other successes in Allen County and Iola. The Southwind Rail Trail runs from Iola to Humboldt and has riders several days a week. Thrive recently worked to develop a trail at a former rock quarry. The result was the Lehigh Portland Trails, which gets visits from trail enthusiasts from across the country.
The trail activity allowed Iola to recruit a bicycle shop and that led to a bicycle share program. The bike share program now has 45 bikes.
She said a picture of cyclists on Southwind trail under a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds is the image she wants others to see when thinking of Allen County. This is an image used on brochures.
Vision is key to moving an organization forward. “What is the vision you want people to have when you guys are talking about Labette County? What do you want them to see? How do you want them to think of you?” Regehr asked.
She said Allen County also has a community garden built in an area impacted by flooding in 2007. Russell Stover employees came up with an idea to use sugar containers from the industry for raised gardens, which Regehr said is one benefit of building partnerships with many people, organizations and businesses. The ideas generated help and there are more hands to share the workload.
The organization has had failures and she said SHIFT Labette will have failures. The trick is to fail forward and keep working.
Listening to community needs is key. She said listening is what pushed Thrive toward building a dog park after several dental recruits visiting Iola asked if it had one.
“Because when you keep getting the same question over and over again, you need to start paying attention.”
Moran is another success story with its new fitness center and co-operative grocery store, both starting with community discussions.
“Small towns won’t survive unless people want to live there,” Regehr said.
The trick is to figure out what people want to keep them here. “So we need to figure that out.”
Detroit lost more than 1 million in population in recent decades after the auto industry declined. Iola had 15,000 people in 1907 and has 5,500 today. Iola doesn’t have the same “fat to burn” as Detroit.
“So we have to be scrappier” and focus how to keep people in the community.
“Detroit could lose 1.1 million people and still function and function well. … We can’t do that.”
Positive energy keeps the fires burning.
“We are constantly trying to lift up our community, because let’s face it there are plenty of people who want to drag it down. But it’s our job to make sure the good is getting out there as well,” Regehr said.
Labette County community leaders attended Thursday’s meeting, as did a representative of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Two representatives of the Montgomery County Wellness Coalition also attended.