"5 Healthy Towns" celebrate a decade of taking health into their own hands

For the past decade, five communities in and around Washtenaw County have been taking health and wellness into their own hands through the 5 Healthy Towns Project (5H).


5H is a multi-community wellness initiative funded by the 5 Healthy Towns Foundation (5HF) to promote and maintain healthy communities in Chelsea, Dexter, Grass Lake, Manchester, and Stockbridge. The project focuses on the four elements of the foundation's vision: eat better, move more, connect with each other in healthy ways, and avoid unhealthy substances.


5HF was founded with a $25 million endowment to replace the Chelsea Area Wellness Foundation soon after St. Joseph Mercy Health System merged with Chelsea Community Hospital in 2009.


5HF CEO Amy Heydlauff says the foundation focused on engaging the community at a grassroots level shortly after it was established. Community coalitions were created for each of the five towns to involve community members in determining where funds would make the greatest impact. Today, coalitions propose their own initiatives to 5HF. Some programs are specific to the community's needs and others are 5H-wide projects that all five towns support.


Heydlauff says it's uncommon for a foundation to allow the public to play such a critical role in funding allocations, but 5HF reviews every proposal from the coalitions and approves it if the proposal aligns with the foundation's mission and budget.


"We are fully committed to letting the communities be the decision makers," Heydlauff says. "Instead of our foundation and board making decisions, we have a process in place that allows them to look and see where the passions are in the communities, to allow (the communities) to determine and meet their own needs."




Heydlauff says the foundation began by implementing programs at the Chelsea Wellness Center and attempting to increase membership there. In 2010, Heydlauff says there were approximately 3,200 members. Now, additional wellness centers have opened and memberships have steadily increased.


"The percentage of people in the community that use wellness centers is almost as high as community members who are associated with the school district," Heydlauff says.


The farmers markets in each community have also been a central focus of each community coalition. In the last few years, communities have enhanced the farmers market experience through marketing, upgraded facilities, and additional programs to support local agriculture.


Shawn Personke has served on the Chelsea coalition team since its inception and has led the annual Farm to Table Fabulous Feast in the community for the past couple of years.


That event gathers community members across the five towns through a ticketed dinner with food donated by local farmers and prepared by local chefs. The first event began in Chelsea four years ago and has since rotated to the other communities, with 2019's dinner taking place in Dexter.


"It's important to me to celebrate local food, the farmers who create it, and our chefs who create the wonderful menus," Personke says. "(The feast) creates awareness to attendees about local food and eating better."


Grass Lake


When the Grass Lake coalition was founded in 2011, its primary focus was to combat prescription and opiate drug abuse in the area, after several local students suffered from substance abuse.


One of Grass Lake's longest-standing programs to address this issue is Project Safe Graduation. Grass Lake High School hosts students to celebrate safely on the night of graduation, aiming to help graduating seniors make good decisions.


Grass Lake has also promoted healthy living through other interventions. The coalition has held healthy eating classes in collaboration with the Jackson District Library, delivered monthly meals to senior centers, and constructed a multi-use sand volleyball court that can convert into an ice skating rink during the winter months.




Like other participating towns, Dexter has promoted healthy eating, especially for the younger population.


One of the largest interventions taken on by the Dexter coalition is the Farm to School program, where Dexter Community Schools engage students with school gardening and cooking classes, gardening clubs, and Michigan-grown meals provided at least once a month for lunch. The school district purchases much of the produce that Farm to School grows in school gardens for school lunches, and some is even purchased by local businesses.


Farm to School coordinator Lisa Babe says students who take ownership of their own healthy eating through Farm to School are set up to continue making healthy choices in the future.


"We talk about federal guidelines for healthy eating, and it doesn't really click until they experience it cooking in a class and eating the meal they made themselves," Babe says. "It's the same with the garden when they see what they planted as seeds harvested as bok choy, radishes, and other vegetables."




Shortly after the coalition was founded, a central focus for Stockbridge was building the Stockbridge Wellness Center, which opened in 2013. Since then, the community has created interventions to promote the center's use, such as the Be Fit program. Be Fit encourages junior high and high school students to develop a regular fitness routine and helps structure individualized fitness plans for up to 20 individuals.


Stockbridge also promotes exercise in the area through walking trails, community bike racks, and a diabetes prevention program.




In Manchester, the community coalition has determined some of its more recent programs based on community health data, such as a 2015 Washtenaw County Health Department survey that indicated 68% of Manchester residents are obese or overweight.


Ruth Vanbogelen, Manchester coalition member, says the community used that information to create programming to lower that number in Manchester.


Since 2016, a diabetes prevention program and weight loss program called MMLB Challenge (MM is 2,000 in Roman numerals and LB stands for pounds) has been created to help Manchester residents lose 2,000 pounds as a community over time.


Vanbogelen says the programs have become more effective every year. By the end of the MMLB program's third year in 2019, 53 members lost nearly 700 pounds and 20% of the group reached their goal weight. Similar programs will continue for next year, Vanbogelen says.


"If we can kickstart programs that are really addressing specific issues, that's where we see the most enthusiasm in the community," Vanbogelen says. "It's great when you can get data from programs too, like how much people lost."


5H's Future


With nearly a decade under its belt, Heydlauff says 5HF is working on an additional strategy to enhance the work of the foundation and community coalitions.


5HF was recently selected to participate in ReThink Health, a national health initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in collaboration with St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, Michigan Medicine Department of Family Medicine, and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.


ReThink Health is partnering with three regions across the country for this project, designed to bring meaningful change in health and wellness.


Heydlauff says representatives from the four institutions will work with ReThink Health over the next two years to develop strategies to help residents learn how to care for their mental health. Mental health was chosen as a focus due to community interest, and the foundation will continue to keep input from the five core towns at the forefront of its decisions.


Personke says 5HF's mission and the community coalitions' efforts have affected everyone in the surrounding communities, whether they realize it or not.


"The foundation is vital to our five healthy towns," Personke says. "They're so valuable, and their mission is so valuable to every single person. You may not know it, but lifestyle changes can make a big impact on one's life, and the foundation is carrying that out beautifully."


Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at emily@emilybenda.com.


Photos by Doug Coombe.

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