Now president of Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC), Dr. Michael Helmick first learned about the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places North Carolina initiative while serving as president of Rockingham Community College. Rockingham County is among the first of seven counties where the Trust launched Healthy Places and began investing in community-led projects and programs designed to improve health outcomes.
“West Piedmont Community College’s mission is to provide accessible, high quality education that improves lives and promotes community growth. This can be extended to include healthy living,” said Dr. Helmick. “Whether local residents are taking health-related classes or using our campus to hike, bike or play tennis, the college is at the center of an active culture dedicated to healthy living.”
The Trust is working with community colleges across North Carolina to explore how these institutions can play a role in improving community health. Launched in 2012, Healthy Places is investing up to $100 million in 10 to 12 of North Carolina’s rural, financially disadvantaged counties, many of which are home to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other serious health conditions. Healthy Places grantmaking is driven by community concerns, as well as the Trust’s assessment of the prospect for sustainable, long-term change. To date, Healthy Places has invested in Halifax, Beaufort, McDowell, Rockingham, Burke, and Edgecombe and Nash counties.
The Trust’s work with community colleges is an example of strategically leveraging a county’s existing resources to improve community health. Rural community colleges are often the only postsecondary institution in their community, serving as a workforce trainer, employer, community convener, cultural ambassador, and change agent. And as such, community colleges are positioned to make significant contributions to improving the health and wellness of community residents.
“West Piedmont Community College programs are driven by the needs of local businesses and industry, just as Healthy Places investments are driven by community concerns,” said Dr. Helmick. “Working together with our neighbors, the College can help identify health challenges and develop strategies to tackle those challenges. I hope that Burke County will take the opportunity provided by Healthy Places to initiate some basic lifestyle changes for residents that will eventually turn this county into a model for healthy eating and living.”
WPCC is one of seven community colleges serving counties where Healthy Places grantmaking is underway. To better leverage the positive impact of these institutions on the communities they serve, the Trust brought in MDC, a nonprofit based in Durham, to analyze the colleges’ current and potential roles in improving health outcomes and influencing healthy behaviors.
MDC’s analysis consisted of bringing together representatives of the community colleges, including four college presidents, for a two-day meeting. During the meeting these leaders learned about Healthy Places’ efforts in their communities and discussed the institutions’ current role in addressing community health needs. MDC also visited each of the community colleges in order to meet face-to-face with faculty, staff, and students and explore the programs and offerings intended to address health needs on campus and in the community at large.
MDC then produced a report outlining next steps to encourage community colleges to increase the role they play in advancing health outcomes on and off campus. Next steps include exploring specific projects colleges can undertake to better provide health-related programming to faculty, staff, students, and surrounding communities; learning how to more effectively communicate existing programs and opportunities with students and community residents; reimagining the campus as a community destination and resource; and continuing to support and increase opportunities for the colleges to partner with community-based institutions and local businesses. The colleges will also form a learning community to ensure that best practices are shared between institutions.
“West Piedmont Community College is currently looking at how the college can support access to health care by leveraging the work of our health science students. We have explored ways to use our community health classes’ students to work with the residents of Burke County to provide information about diabetes and other diseases that affect this predominantly rural population,” said Dr. Helmick.
Dr. Helmick is exploring additional ways WPCC can promote health. “At Western Piedmont Community College we grow some of the healthiest food in the county, yet we lack a way to get that food into our own college food program. We hope that Healthy Places will help us develop a system of food distribution to apply to our campus and then be scaled up to work in the whole community, which in turn would help to alleviate the food deserts that occur in some parts of the county. We have the resources; we just need a way to deliver those resources to the community in a way that benefits both our students and our neighbors,” added Dr. Helmick.
To learn more about Healthy Places investments in Burke County, click here Healthy Places North Carolina.
Above: Dr. Michael Helmick