By Bill Soper, YMCA CEO La Crosse Area Family YMCA
A stronger, healthier and happier Coulee Region starts with activities that keep residents active and engaged. We know that by removing barriers to unhealthy lifestyles, we can reduce conditions such as obesity and diabetes that are plaguing our neighbors and driving up the cost of health care. In addition, the epidemic of physical inactivity and poor nutrition leads to chronic health problems like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
Our YMCA, through the Pioneering Healthier Communities (PHC) and many other initiatives is committed to improving the health and well-being of our community, both inside and outside the walls of the YMCA. We have been successful with our many community partners in combating the unhealthy lifestyles by implanting policies, projects and programs that make the healthy choice the easy choice where we live, learn, work and play.
In the fall of 2007 our YMCA was selected by the YMCA of the USA to be a PHC YMCA. PHC is a partnership between the YMCA of the USA, local Y’s, local businesses, local government and local organizations and CDC. This work provided the opportunity to bring community leaders together so collaboratively we could improve the health and well being of our community. Our success with the PHC initiative provided the platform to launch many other community focused health and well-being efforts.
Where We Play
For years, YMCAs have focused on curbing physical inactivity. In fact, we’ve found that a love of play at any age can really improve the health and wellbeing of kids of all ages and, by extension, our county.
Three years ago we launched a program in partnership with YMCA of the USA called Press Play. Press Play is a free 8-week program designed to re-engage empty nester adults ages 45-60 in physical activity. Our Press Play opportunities have included basketball, dance, fitness classes, group exercise classes and nutrition.
Two years ago we brought the CDC-led National Diabetes Prevention Program to our community. The program helps those at high risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles by eating healthier, increasing physical activity and losing a modest amount of weight in order to reduce their chances of developing the disease. Since April 2011, 100 individuals have enrolled in the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program at the La Crosse Area Family YMCA.
At age 82, Dee Hutzler started exercising, lifting weights and changing her eating habits as part of the Diabetes Prevention Program. She joined the program when it was offered for the first time in April and lost 20 pounds during the first 16 weeks. She kept it off, even losing an additional five pounds during the maintenance period of the program. “I am a lot healthier, and I feel stronger,” Dee says. “I move a lot better and I am making better choices when it comes to eating. I just didn’t want to be diabetic, and when I heard about the program, I was really interested in it.” Dee’s story, as remarkable as it is, is a common occurrence among many participants of the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program since its launch in April, 2011.
In addition, we built community gardens adjacent to our Community Teen Center and the childcare center at our North YMCA. We host garden tours for other childcare centers to help bring gardens to the rest of the community. All of the produce from our Y North garden is incorporated into snacks or provided to Y members.
To reach younger populations, each year, through grant funding and a partnership with the Safe Kids coalition of the Coulee Region, the YMCA offers free swimming lessons. This year, over 130 youth between the ages of 6-14 spent a week in YMCA pools learning how to swim and be safe in the water.
Where We Learn
Healthier children and adolescents make healthier adults. It’s that simple. It’s far easier to educate younger people on healthy choices than curb entrenched lifestyle decisions in middle-age. To ensure our children have the brightest future possible, we need to make sure they are as healthy as they can be.
One year ago we launched a partnership with the school district of Onalaska to manage their employee and student wellness programs. A “Community Wellness Director” spends half their time working with the district wellness team, the staff and the students within the district focused on improved well-being through behavior change. We have established a school garden at La Crosse’s Franklin Elementary School. In addition, we have worked to incorporate farm-to-school curricula into the child care center and bring local fresh fruits and vegetables into school lunch menus. We have also transformed menus throughout the Y to include fresh fruits and vegetables for all children.
This includes menu changes in our full time childcare center, our school age programs, summer school programs and at our community teen center. In fact, all 900 enrolled school age child care receive a fresh fruit or vegetable daily.
To further educate children on the importance of a balanced diet, we are incorporating the 5210 curriculum into all Y youth programs: five fruits or vegetables daily, less than two hours of screen time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary sweetened drinks daily. Slowly, we are seeing water become the drink of choice.
Where We Work
People spend a lot of time at work. Unfortunately most of that time is sitting or, if they are moving back and forth, it’s usually to go to and from the vending machine. To truly affect a population change, we have to reach people where they are spending most of their time.
So, we partnered with a local vending company, Stansfield Vending, on Wellness Warriors, a program focused on increasing the amount of healthy food options in their vending machines.
The healthy options are sold at a lower price point and the less healthy food items are at a higher price point. With the help of PHC, Wellness Warriors has been introduced to several local businesses.
Additionally, Stansfield Vending launched another program countywide where for every piece of fresh fruit that is sold in their vending machines, they donate one piece of fresh fruit to the Ys School Age Child Care program.
Through our PHC partners (Gundersen Lutheran Health System & Mayo Health Systems), we created a Well Workplace Toolkit and recognition breakfast designed to encourage businesses to launch programs, policies and projects to support employee wellness within the workplace. We have also contracted with a large La Crosse employer, Inland Market and Labeling, to work with their wellness team to improve the well-being of their employees through behavior change efforts.
Where We Live
The majority of our programs and initiatives are created to make it easier for people to make the healthy choice where they live. We have gone beyond our community center and delivered produce to schools, healthy vending options to workplaces and physical activity options to neighborhoods.
Our PHC team recently brought together the leadership of local community gardens to have a conversation designed to bring efficiencies to the distribution of fruits and vegetables from these gardens. While we’re in the early stages of this effort, ultimately it should improve access and distribution of fresh produce.
In addition, in partnership with local businesses and the County of La Crosse, we have installed nearly 60 bike racks in the La Crosse community. The bike racks are located primarily downtown and help encourage the community to ride to town on bikes, not in cars.
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