By Michael Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
As HealthWorks! Children’s Education Center celebrates its first year, the infectiously contaminating fun has been spreading around Tupelo and the region.
The center – which gave new life to an old Kroger building at the corner of Industrial and Robert E. Lee drives – has logged nearly 25,000 visits in its first year.
School groups have come from as far away as Webster County; Memphis, Michie, Tenn.; and Winfield, Ala., to participate in the high-energy programs where kids have fun while they learn about their bodies, good nutrition and healthy choices.
“We’re honored when they choose to spend four hours on a bus,” said Donna Loden, Imaginator of Awesome Experiences, or the programs director.
This fall and winter, Tupelo has seen an unprecedented participation in healthy community activities like the Mayor’s Marathon and Trim Down, Tone Up Tupelo.
“It’s really been extraordinary,” said Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who formed a Mayor’s Taskforce on Health which has organized the community-wide events and hopes to win a $50,000 grant being offered through BlueCross BlueShield of Mississippi Healthiest Hometown Contest. “I hope this will continue to be contagious.”
Both HealthWorks! and the community health events reflect the power of collaboration.
“We’ve worked for many, many years to promote healthy lifestyles,” said Liz Dawson, director of community health and co-chairman of the mayor’s taskforce. “I think the message has gotten through that we all have to work together. The community has realized we all have ownership.”
A year of healthy fun
HealthWorks! opened its doors Jan. 31, 2009, after years of planning and a regional fundraising campaign. The Health Care Foundation of North Mississippi, the philanthropic arm of the North Mississippi Health Services, spearheaded the campaign, but the effort was bigger than just the hospital system.
“It’s probably met our hopes,” Hancock said. “It’s certainly exceeded our expectations.”
The center was based on the original HealthWorks! created by Memorial Regional Health Care in South Bend, Ind. The goal is to deliver high-quality health education in a way that kids will not only learn it but live it.
“They hit the ground running and have not stopped,” said Rebecca Zakowski, maestro of mission multiplication for the South Bend Center, who said she is thrilled by all that HealthWorks! Tupelo has accomplished. “They have kind of taken the town by storm.”
The classrooms are set up for dynamic, interactive presentations. The exhibit floor was designed to get kids engaged as they reinforced the classroom lessons about healthy choices, especially physical activity.
The programs, like Double Dare, Be a Food Groupie, Anatomy Academy and ScrubbadubbaVeggieThinkercize, are a far cry from traditional lessons, but they are aligned with Mississippi’s health education curriculum and the center is a certified supplemental health education center.
“It’s unlike any other experience they’ve had,” said Kathy Tucker, a HealthWorks! high-flying kid motivator or health educator. “I think it’s a surprise. They see what we can accomplish with fun and a level of energy.”
The fun doesn’t stop when school is out. The staff created half-day camps to engage elementary students in creative, enriching programs that covered science, drama, a mystery caper, art as well as healthy choices and physical activity. More than 1,000 attended the camps and special programs in the past 12 months.
The staff – which includes High Flying Kid Motivators or health educators and Captains of the Universe, exhibit floor guides – likes to coin words like “whappy” from wacky and happy to describe the controlled, healthy chaos that is HealthWorks!, Loden said.
“It’s an unusual staff and an unusual structure,” Hancock said. “They do a phenomenal job of programming. It drives attendance; it drives the financials.”
The HealthWorks! creativity isn’t limited to the small circle of staff members. The group has collaborated with Junior Auxiliary and the Lee County Medical Alliance to offer programs at the center, in addition to participating in the mayor’s task force.
Collaboration is the motor that is moving the community health efforts, too, Reed said.
The Community Development Foundation, North Mississippi Medical Center and Tupelo Public School District are all key players in the health and other task forces Reed set up.
“Every child in Tupelo elementary schools participated in the Mayor’s Marathon,” Reed said.
As a result, nearly 4,000 people turned in logs for the November effort to walk 26.3 miles in a month.
Businesses were encouraged to have their own weight loss contests within the Trim Down, Tone Up Tupelo challenge. Organizers were surprised when 149 teams climbed on the large scales at city hall for the group weight loss competition that will finish in March.
The baby steps toward a healthier Tupelo go back years with the proliferation of walking tracks and the creation of a skate park and disc golf courses.
“It’s been a progression,” Dawson said. “It’s just building blocks.”
HealthWorks isn’t the first out-of-the-box effort to improve the region’s health.
“When we said we’d pay for school nurses, that was considered radical,” Dawson said.
But HealthWorks does provide a tangible presence and a concentration of people who are focused on getting people excited about healthy lives.
“I’m sure we would not be as far along,” without the brain power from the HealthWorks staff, Reed said.
HealthWorks! dropped jaws at the Southern Leaders Conference in New Orleans, Reed said.
“No other city in the South had done anything like this,” Reed said.
The real payoff for the healthy city initiatives isn’t dependent on winning the contest, Reed said. The taskforce is focused on expanding the city’s system of sidewalks and creating bike lanes to make it safer and more inviting to exercise.
“In five years, I hope we’ll see more folks walking and biking, fewer obese children and a reduction in Type 2 diabetes,” Reed said. “Given the response to the first two (events), it’s not just a wish, it’s a possibility.”
Investment in healthy futures
HealthWorks! is staying financially healthy, too. The Health Care Foundation raised $5 million to cover the cost of the construction and launch of HealthWorks!, and has raised another $600,000 to support the center’s mission.
“HealthWorks will always need community support,” Hancock said. “We can’t charge $15 a person for a family to come in” and reach the whole community.
It costs just under $400,000 a year to operate HealthWorks!, said Linda Stokes, the Queen of Chaos or operations director for HealthWorks!
Kids pay between $5 and $7 for field trips; fees are reduced for kids who qualify for free and reduced school food programs. General admission is $4. That covers about half of the operations cost.
The investment is starting to pay dividends. In evaluations being conducted by the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center, HealthWorks! message seems to be sticking.
“There are some really great results,” said researcher Ginger Cross.
One of the evaluations focused on pre- and post-tests following ScrubbadubbaVeggieThinkercize, a healthy lifestyle program. Researchers tested kids a third time six weeks after their visit to see how much they had retained, Cross said.
“Some things went down, but some things went up,” Cross said, suggesting kids had continued to talk about and put the health information into action, such as sneezing into an elbow instead of your hand to keep germs from spreading. “It was very impressive.”
The HealthWorks! effect didn’t just work on the kids. Teachers and adult chaperones included in satisfaction surveys that they had learned things during the visit.
“Even I’m sneezing into my elbow,” Cross said.
There’s no cruise control setting at HealthWorks! The staff is working on new programs for schools and the public, like the monthly Make It A Habit Club, that encourages families to come to the center together for a program.
“It’s not just about kids,” Loden said. “It’s about making connections with families.”
HealthWorks! is ready to get started on the SHAPE program, which is funded by a nearly $500,000 federal grant. The administrative details are still being worked out with CREATE Foundation, which is the fiscal agent for the federal grant, Hancock said.
The focus will first be on determining the true need so HealthWorks! can deliver outreach programs and serve as a resource for lessons and best practices in physical and health education programs, Hancock said.
And there are still people who haven’t been infected by the HealthWorks! spirit.
“We still have people come in and say, ‘I had no idea this was here. You’re the best-kept secret in Tupelo,’” Loden said.
By the numbers
HealthWorks! first year
Through Jan. 28
Field trips 15,974
Walk-up visits 7,255
Camps/special programs 1,105
Birthday party guests (since May) 568
Join the fun
Upcoming programs at HealthWorks!
– BodyWorks, a program for girls 9 to 13 and their moms or caregivers, will begin at 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at HealthWorks! in Tupelo. Sessions will meet 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays from Feb. 23 to April 6, excluding March 16. The free program focuses on healthy eating and activity habits. Call (662) 377-5437.
– Make It a Habit Club will be 10 to 11 a.m. Feb. 27 at HealthWorks! Children’s Health Education Center in Tupelo. Each month the club will focus on healthy living and physical activity. Open to families with children in kindergarten and up. Parents can participate or hang out on the Funtastic Floor. In February, the theme will be Go for the Gold! Cost is $4 per person admission to center; members free. Call (662) 377-5437.
Starting March 8
– Lighten Up-Running is Fun, a fitness program for tweens of all ability levels, will start at 4:30 p.m. March 8. The classes will meet from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Mondays from March 8 to May 17, except for March 15 at HealthWorks! in Tupelo. Open to girls and boys in grades 4 to 8. Culminates in May 22 Tie-Dye 5K Cross Country Invitational. Fee is $75 includes materials, T-shirt and race entry fee. Scholarships available based on need. Space is limited. Call (662) 377-5437.