Passport to a better you: College launches Healthier Valdez challenge to engage residents

January 01, 2018

AKnews4In the seaside community of Valdez, Providence Health & Services Alaska’s commitment to improve the lives of Alaskans is gaining exciting momentum. When a community-wide program called Healthier You faced elimination, advocates at Prince William Sound College took up the effort, creating a 16-week campaign they call Healthier Valdez.

“The college’s health and fitness center decided to take it on and change it a little bit and make it their own,” said Ryan Belnap, assistant director at Prince William Sound College. “We wanted to talk about a holistic approach to wellness that includes emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual, occupational and social well being. It is all connected, and we wanted it to be a community effort.”

Providence provided $30,000 in funding to the college, making it possible for Belnap to hire the staff needed to redesign a program that serves all ages and physical abilities. Healthier Valdez uses a passport system in which participants track their activities and receive stamps upon completion of each task.

“People are on their own to make their goals regarding nutrition and regular exercise,” he said, “and the passport lets them record their points and daily activity.”

Jeremy O’Neill, Providence Valdez Medical Center administrator, says the revised program focuses on overall health – not just physical fitness – to draw in a larger population of residents.

“I think one of the biggest determinants of health is social connections, and Healthier Valdez truly tries to leverage events that will foster strong social connections,” O’Neill says. “It’s broad so it’s not just focusing on people who run or do a sport, but trying to cover the spectrum of wellness themes.”

For example, O’Neill volunteered at one of the first cooking classes offered in the community to show participants how to make broccoli-cheese soup in a pressure cooker.

“They helped chop the broccoli, and learned how to use a pressure cooker,” he said. “It was very interactive and very engaging, and appeals to the wellness side of creating healthy meals and doing it in a fun collaborative way. There were young and old involved.”

Still, physical fitness is encouraged, too. In its latest Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) survey, conducted once every three years, Providence Valdez found that 66 percent of survey respondents were overweight or obese. That’s a percentage that both Belnap and O’Neill would like to see shrink. So the Healthier Valdez challenge includes such activities as lap swim, kids fitness, adult basketball, senior swim, open gym, ladies crossfit and more.

The Healthier Valdez campaign runs from January through April. Belnap said the idea is to capture people as they make New Year’s resolutions but also occupy them during the cold, dark months when cabin fever can become a real and debilitating issue.

“We want people to stay socially connected,” Belnap said. “As long as they’re challenging themselves and we’re getting them out in the community, then this is a good thing.”

Belnap said having community buy-in has helped the program, too. By allowing local businesses and nonprofits to become part of the challenge, the community feels some ownership and pride in the program. A local mental health group put on a Mental Health Bingo night, a local bank offered a finance workshop and an elementary school counselor offered parenting classes.

“You can participate in any of these classes, stay socially connected and start the year out with healthy habits,” Belnap says. “That is the goal, and we hope to keep this program going every year.”