By Amy Loeffler
Health professionals, educators, and policymakers gathered in Roanoke in April to learn more about building partnerships in communities to promote physical and mental wellness.
The 2016 National Health Outreach Conference, hosted by Virginia Cooperative Extension, was grounded in the theme “All Aboard: Building Partnerships for a Healthy America.”
“This conference brings many different individuals together from fields as varied as nutrition and exercise, mental health, and community viability,” said Crystal Tyler-Mackey, community viability specialist with Extension. “By using a comprehensive approach to address the needs of often underserved populations, we are able to not only be concerned with marginalized populations, but also with providing culturally relevant programming and solutions to the groups that we serve.”
Indeed, Extension is often the crux of relationships in communities that strive to be leaders in wellness and seek out many different partners to achieve health and wellness goals.
Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe attended the event and underscored the importance of healthy habits. “In Virginia, it is staggering … we have over 300,000 children who live in food-insecure households,” McAuliffe said. “No child in our state or nation should suffer the shame, the indignity, and the physical symptoms of hunger and malnutrition.”
In one session, participants learned about Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s multipronged effort to evaluate the effects of existing Extension programs on the health and wellness of children in low-income and underserved areas of Texas. The initiative — called “Texas Grow! Eat! Go!” — is a collaboration of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, University of Texas School of Public Health, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M School of Public Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The main objective of the program was to improve the physical activity levels and eating behaviors of elementary school children and their families.
“We know that schools can be the heart of health in the community,” said Judith Warren, special initiatives coordinator with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
In Alaska, where suicide rates are almost as twice as high as the national average, 4-H clubs address very different needs.
“We care about keeping kids safe,” said Debra Jones, a Virginia Tech alumna and 4-H program leader for Alaska. “I focus on mental health.”
In many workshops, Jones and her colleagues use theater and performance so kids and young adults can work through issues that contribute to mental illness.
Another way 4-H works to combat mental illness in Alaska is through recruiting martial arts teachers from California to spend a two-week in-service with kids in more remote villages.
The 4-H clubs in Alaska also reflect local customs and culture, including workshops that offer outlets to discuss and learn about Alaskan culture. For example, at the Fairbanks/Tanana 4-H Club, kids learn about dog sledding through the Mush Club.
Just like dogs in sled teams need each other to accomplish large tasks, the conference was a testament to the importance of working together to build partnerships to promote health and wellness for communities.