Making Western North Carolina healthier comes down to three things: prevention, collaboration and choices, says Leah Ferguson, a lead coordinator for Region 2 of the Community Transformation Project.
“The individual certainly has a responsibility for the choices they make — but the community has a responsibility for how easy those choices are to make,” she asserts.
Making healthy choices the easy choice is a key goal of the project, notes Ferguson, who’s responsible for Buncombe, Henderson and Madison counties. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the project spans 16 states, with 10 regional subgroups in North Carolina alone. The goal is to implement policy, systems and environmental changes that encourage things like healthy eating, living actively and tobacco-free, and access to evidence-based, clinical preventive services.
“We know that health starts where we live, learn, work and play,” she explains. “For example, we’re looking at what resources people have access to. Do they have a place for physical activity? Do they have access to that place? And things like what is a community’s bikeability and walkability. We’re trying to open doors and connect systems across the board.”
Each local program gets a five-year grant; Ferguson’s is now in its second year, and most of her job, she reports, involves “lifting up and supporting” work that’s already being done in a given community — and finding out what it needs for maximum health.
“It’s not about telling communities what to do. It’s really about allowing them to make their own choices, based on what they see as the biggest challenges,” she says.
Inclusiveness is crucial. A wheelchair user, Ferguson explains, can’t comfortably push the button at a crosswalk. “That’s a planning issue; that’s a decision that we make. But if that community group doesn’t have a voice, or they didn’t know there was a hearing, or no one is helping them understand how they can share their story, then the planners don’t know that there’s a population that needs that support.”
But support can also take the form of education. In Madison County, for example, the Community Transformation Project is working with the Health Department and the Madison Community Health Consortium to develop the Madison@Heart campaign.
Heart disease is the No. 2 cause of death in both Buncombe and Madison counties. To promote awareness, heart pins and educational materials will be available at participating Madison County businesses and organizations during February. Ferguson says they’ll ask people to wear the heart pin on their sleeve if they have heart disease, love someone with heart disease or simply want to express concern for the well-being of people living with the disease.
“Just 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger a heart attack in someone who has heart disease,” she notes. “That’s powerful information, and I know that people who choose to smoke want to know that, too. Part of this work is about helping people think about their own choices and make more informed choices.”
Bringing more voices to the table, helping groups connect and educating residents, Ferguson believes, will lead to a healthier, more forward-thinking region.
“If Western North Carolina has a hallmark, it’s caring about each other, and not just being introspective but ‘outrospective.’ This is an opportunity for people to think about what they can do to impact someone else’s health along with their own, looking toward the future.”