BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — It’s up to us.
That’s the motto of the more than 500 participants in the “Try This West Virginia” initiative, a group of public officials, non-profit organizers, and ground-level health officials who are on the front-lines of a war to improve public health in the Mountain State.
“Try This” is just coming off it’s second annual two-day conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College, bringing together people from all across the Mountain State who represent communities with differing, and in some cases all-too-familiar, health problems.
But “Try This West Virginia” is unique in that it takes complex problems and simplifies them through a simple mindset: “Why can’t we do this?”
“Try it, and it will help the health of your community,” says Dr. Jeffrey, the Director of Keys 4 Healthy Kids and a pediatrician in Charleston who focuses on weight management.
If you’re wondering what “it” actually is, you need not look any further than your own imagination. The figurative “it” can be anything–a new child care center, a farmer’s market, a food pantry that partners with a farmer’s market to serve healthy produce. The ideas go on and on, and they flow openly as non-profit partners network throughout the conference.
The problems and their solutions remain the responsibility of the communities impacted by them, but “Try This” aims to guide non-profit organizations and city government officials in how best to navigate the complex world of public health. From healthy practices to assistance in grant-writing for health initiatives, “Try This” aims to help these organizations solve what seem like unsolvable problems.
“This state has, unfortunately, evolved to the point where we usually swap positions with the state of Mississippi for 49th and 50th in the nation by every measure,” said Mayor Robert Johnson of Richwood, WV.
This was Johnson’s second time attending the conference. He’s now part of the steering committee, and is hopeful that “Try This” will be a muse in helping small towns like Richwood overcome some of their public health obstacles.
“I mean when we have eight and ten-year-old children with Type 2 Diabetes, there is something wrong with this picture,” he said.
In fact, Dr. Jeffrey considers the “picture” to be a full-blown crisis. Recently, she’s seen three young children that she’s had to treat for prediabetes, a condition she says is usually more prevalent in people in their mid 40’s.
“This is an epidemic,” she said. “This is a public health threat. And we have to start taking it serious and do something about it. And that means every single person has to do their part.”
Richwood Mayor Robert Johnson faces his own obstacles down the heart of the state. Richwood is one of only two incorporated towns in Nicholas County, along with Summersville. According to Johnson, the town has lost around 1000 people over the past twenty years–mostly in people moving away.
“What that does for funding public services, that’s also substantial,” Johnson said.
That’s strike one: a reduction in revenues. People are a town’s most valuable resource, and Richwood is losing there’s. But Richwood’s problems aren’t unique among small West Virginia towns. The areas are rural in nature, but are lacking in public transportation.
“Over the years we have obviously grown to depend on cars for transportation,” he said. “Public transportation still remains pretty tough in most of the state. Our existing cities are not necessarily walkable.”
That’s one of Johnson’s goals: make his city more walkable, and improve accessibility to the city and health all at once.
“There’s nothing ventured until you start,” said Johnson. “And that’s really what ‘Try This’ means.”
Virtually anybody you ask in the health care community will tell you that the health path the state is on has to change.
“This is a health care crisis for everyone in West Virginia, but especially for our kids,” said Dr. Jeffrey.
The good news, as everybody with “Try This” will point out, is that changes have already begun in some unexpected places. Huntington was once ranked as the nation’s unhealthiest area in the country. Now, the obesity rate is on the decline.
It’s all thanks to a simple motto: it’s up to us.