Cowley County this week was named as one of eight Pathways to a Healthy Kansas communities by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas (BCBSKS).

Cowley County grant award

Courtesy photo

The grant, possibly one of the most significant ever awarded in the county, is for $100,000 immediately toward implementation, with an additional $400,000 also now available to local entities.

“I danced on my desk when I heard we had been selected,” said Tom Langer, City-Cowley County Health Department administrator and county public health officer.

“I’m ecstatic. This fits right into what I came to Cowley County to do.”

The grant was awarded to RISE Cowley, a local coalition of business, government and nonprofit partners that works to promote healthy communities.

Out of the many applications submitted, BCBSKS selected 16 finalists that were visited in June by a Pathways team.

“After seeing the community, Blue Cross Blue Shield then made the decision (about which) eight communities (were awarded),” Langer said.

This success story is made all the more incredible considering that the first time RISE Cowley applied for the grant, it didn’t even make the first cut to receive a site visit.

If at first you don’t succeed…

RISE Cowley grant award

Courtesy photo

Last year was the first of two years that BCBSKS offered the Pathways grant.

“I was 100 percent in support of the grant the first time I heard of it,” said Langer, who had been on the job for less than a year when the opportunity arose and still was learning about the community.

“I probably wouldn’t be involved with RISE Cowley now if it weren’t for the Pathways grant,” said Andrew Lawson, public information officer and special projects coordinator for the City of Arkansas City. “Tom called a meeting of various local partners to discuss the program, and right away, I saw the amazing possibilities it held for making a significant impact in Cowley County.”

From the time the grant was announced to the when the application was due, there were only a few weeks for the coalition to write and submit the application.

“We applied last year, but we were not selected,” Langer said. “We crashed and burned, you could say.”

Lawson said part of the issue was time, but other factors conspired against Cowley’s selection. The coalition was more nebulous and didn’t have the direction or identity it has now. There weren’t as many partners at the table and many of the letters of support that were submitted followed the same format, rather than expressing each entity’s unique needs and hopes.

Rising from the ashes

However, Langer said he didn’t view Cowley’s non-selection as failure, but rather an opportunity to learn.

After all, need certainly was not the application’s shortcoming. Cowley County currently ranks in the lowest 10 percent of Kansas counties where overall health is concerned.

“There is no reason that we, as a community, should be that unhealthy,” Langer said.

More determined than ever, he followed up and met with BCBSKS to find out where the application could be improved. He learned that despite some of the challenges it faced, the community was right on the edge of selection for a site visit and the decision could have gone either way. This motivated those involved to work even harder, with the 2017 application date in their sights.

“We had a work session in November with the Community Engagement Institute from (Wichita State University),” said K-State Extension Agent Becky Reid, who serves as the group’s secretary and chairs several working groups.

The discussion centered on what had been done well so far, what still needed to be accomplished and what partners who weren’t yet at the table needed to be invited to participate.

Based on the outgrowth of that work session and what Langer learned from BCBSKS, the not-so-eloquently-named “Cowley County Healthy Communities Coalition” re-branded itself in February as RISE Cowley and looked for new partners within the Cowley County community.

RISE: More than just a name

The name is both a verb representing a challenge and an acronym encompassing portions of the coalition’s mission statement: “Raising awareness, Improving health, Supporting collaboration, Energizing communities.”

Coalition member Sarah Bryant, marketing coordinator for William Newton Hospital in Winfield, designed a new logo and color scheme, as well as produced slick marketing materials.

The coalition’s slogan, “Together We RISE,” sums up the cohesive effort among Arkansas City, Winfield and the smaller communities within Cowley to impact the population positively.

More than 25 people attended the June site visit to represent the various facets of the coalition, which by this time had grown to include both cities’ governments, hospitals, school districts and recreation commissions; the local chambers of commerce and Cowley First; and nonprofits such as Angels in the Attic, Family Life Services and Legacy Community Regional Foundation.

“We have good people, great resources and excellent passion,” Reid said.

Looking to the future

The Pathways grant awards Cowley County with $100,000 over three years to provide RISE with the resources to communicate with and impact more individuals.

RISE will use the money to help educate and empower community members. The first step is a community survey that will be conducted in September through November.

The first thing that RISE will do is to assess where the most impact can be made and how best to accomplish the goals that will be set.

“(We’re looking) for the opportunities for win-win partnerships,” Reid said.

In addition to the $100,000 coordinator grant, Cowley County will be given access to $400,000 of non-competitive implementation and achievement grants to further these efforts.

These grants can be awarded to schools for programs to improve healthy habits in kids, to food retail outlets and restaurants that take steps to improve access to healthy foods, and to employers who want to start work wellness programs that will help their employees to become more fit and hopefully reduce insurance premiums in the long run.

This is just a sampling of the funds that will be available and it only scratches the surface of the possible initiatives that can result. Lawson said he is most excited about the ways funds can be used to further the development of walking and biking options in the community, and he is hopeful that the Wilson Park Master Plan can benefit in some way from this opportunity.

“If you look at that project, you will see it hits all of the factors Blue Cross Blue Shield is most concerned about impacting,” he said. “The park project improves access to healthy eating with the new farm and art market amenities, while it creates new opportunities for active living with the 10-foot-wide walking paths, a new playground and possibly adult outdoor exercise equipment.

“I think that speaks to the value our steering committee placed on those items as components of a healthy, vibrant, active community with a great quality of life. This matters to people and it makes your community look more attractive to others. I really can’t wait to see what this community does with this unprecedented opportunity, and I think the sky is the limit for Cowley County.”

Editors note: Ark City Daily Bytes co-owner Kayleigh Lawson is the co-chair of RISE Cowley for 2017.