To motivate Lake County residents to get moving earlier this year, public health workers used a charming mascot named Rocky the River Otter.
They handed out several of the stuffed animals and asked participants in their “Move More 20+14” physical challenge to photograph themselves exercising next to the cute toys. Rocky ended up in pictures at such locations as an elementary school hula-hoop session, yoga classes and on top of a mountain.
The challenge, which asked participants to do moderate exercise 20 minutes a day for 14 weeks, beginning in January, was one of many projects funded through the Community Transformation Grant Small Communities Program.
Created in 2012 by the Affordable Care Act and administered through the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the two-year grants are intended to prevent chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In the first round of grants, which ran from October 2012 to September 2014, more than $70 million went to communities and counties with fewer than 500,000 people.
Eight new grants, which have now been renamed Partnerships to Improve Community Health grants, were awarded in California in September for a total of $12.2 million. Those awarded were the Community Action Partnership of Orange County ($1.4 million), Santa Clara County ($1.9 million), Fresno County Department of Public Health ($1.5 million), Los Angeles County Office of Education ($3.6 million), Merced County Public Health ($1.3 million), North Coast Opportunities ($472,770), Solano County Public Health ($1.2 million), Toiyabe Indian Health Project ($673,340)
During the first grant cycle, California recipients included St. Helena Hospital Clear Lake ($497,076), which administered the Lake County event, Sonoma County ($3.5 million) and Santa Clara County ($1.027 million).
Kandee Stolesen, one of 2,400 participants in Lake County’s physical challenge, took short walking breaks from her job at the Lake County Office of Education.
“Just taking a 10-15-minute walk helps mind, body and soul,” she said.
Susan Jen, who coordinated St. Helena Hospital Clear Lake’s grant, said other health concerns her program focused on included tobacco reduction, promoting emotional wellbeing and improving nutrition.
Tobacco reduction is a hot issue in the county, which has a smoking rate of 20 percent, seven percentage points higher than the state rate of 13 percent. Jen said the grant helped build awareness of the state smokers’ helpline 1-800-NO-BUTTS, which provides self-help materials and referrals.
Jen’s team also organized community focus groups about kindness. Residents were encouraged to do things like volunteer with neighborhood organizations, help with yard work and show patience with their children.
Kindness reduces stress and contributes to a positive attitude, which leads to overall wellbeing, Jen said.
“The way we treat each other matters on all levels of health,” she added.
The grant also helped improve on efforts to bring locally grown produce to schools. Three school districts — Kelseyville, Lakeport and Middletown — passed policies in the last two years to use local produce. Kelseyville found they saved money by using local growers and did more cooking from scratch rather than heat and serve.
Focusing on healthy community design
Sonoma County used part of its Community Transformation Grant to conduct training in healthy community design for planners and architects. Examples of healthy community design include incorporating parks, including plazas where community members can interact, and getting rid of cul-de-sacs, which block children from being able to walk to school. A total of about 350 architects and planners attended trainings.
The grant also helped Sonoma State University incorporate a class on healthy design principles for planning students. Travis Bradley took the course before graduating and is now using what he learned in his job working at the environmental consulting firm Place Works in Berkeley.
Bradley said he loved that the class brought planners and public health workers together in conversation. He believes it’s still rare for planners to think about the health components of their designs.
“It was great to be on the forefront of talking about healthy communities,” he said. “I don’t think anybody out there is exclusively approaching planning that way.”
Kelly Elder, Sonoma County’s healthy communities section manager, said the grant helped develop a health improvement plan for the troubled Moorland neighborhood. Residents and local politicians made plans to build a park on a vacant lot, improve street lighting and move a bus stop to a more convenient location.
The grant also helped the five birthing hospitals in Sonoma County work to get certification as “baby-friendly hospitals,” meaning they put extra effort into aiding new mothers with breast-feeding. Baby-friendly hospitals support mothers in learning how to breast-feed, discourage the use of formula and pacifiers for infants and inform parents about the benefits of breast-feeding.
“There’s a strong connection between breast-feeding and the health of the child through life,” Elder said. “Breast-feeding makes them less vulnerable to diseases.”
Two years not enough?
Jana Hill, who managed the Sonoma County community transformation grant, said she is proud of what her team accomplished but she wishes the grant was for a longer time period so even more could be done.
That’s a view echoed by Bonnie Broderick, director of chronic disease and injury prevention for Santa Clara County Public Health Department. It takes a few months to put out requests for proposals and to get people on board to administer the grant.
“Five years would have been better,” Broderick said. “It’s hard to get things done in two years.”
One thing the county was able to accomplish was better protecting youths from easy access to tobacco products. As an example, Morgan Hill passed an ordinance requiring tobacco retailers to get a license. Fees from that license help pay for police inspections to check if retailers are selling tobacco to minors.
The grant also helped support efforts to increase neighborhood use of Gilroy’s San Ysidro Park. Inspired by Los Angeles’ “Parks After Dark” program, community residents scheduled dance classes and festivities in the park at night.
Jenni Rivera, a 17-year-old who lives in the neighborhood, said efforts to improve the park are needed.
“That park is known as a bad park,” she said.
Rivera participated in improvement efforts coordinated by the Youth Alliance in Hollister. Diane Ortiz, the director of the nonprofit, said the Community Transformation Grant helped fund efforts to poll the residents about what they needed and wanted.
“Some people in the neighborhood felt forgotten,” she said. “There was an attitude of ‘What can we do? Who’s going to listen to us?’ Bringing the community together like that was really powerful on a number of levels.”