The Allen County Regional Hospital Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Judy Highberger and Tanner Lewis set up an emergency exam room, part of the new Allen County Regional Hospital in Iola. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Humanity House "Blessing Box", located in the middle of the town square, reads "Take what you need. Leave what you can." Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Local youth (L to R) Conner McCoullough, Ryan Cress, Lilly Cunningham, and Katlin Cress eat lunch at a picnic table in front of the MARV ("Meals And Reading Vehicle") bus in a residential neighborhood in Iola. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
A sign advertising the Iola Farmers' Market hangs on a building near the town square. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The future site of the G & W Foods store, which is being built in downtown Iola. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The new townhouse-style building that was constructed next to the future site of the G & W Foods store in downtown Iola. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Wilma Krokstrom (70) works in her garden plot at Elm Creek Community Garden, winner of the 2010 Thrive Award for Community Excellence in Health and Wellness. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The town square in downtown Humboldt. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Robert Walsh uses a robotic welding system at the B&W Trailer Hitch Company, owned by Joe Works. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The entrance to Ray's Metal Depot outside the tiny town of LaHarpe. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Kiefer Endicott (L) and Christian Jackson (17) work at the Regional Technology Center, established by Ray Maloney and winner of the 2016 Thrive Allen County award for community excellence. Copyright 2017 Will Widmer. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
It is with tremendous excitement that we announce that our home — Allen County, Kansas — has been named as a 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize winner.
The Prize honors communities for their unwavering efforts to ensure all residents have the opportunity to live healthier lives. And that certainly describes what we are all working toward in Allen County.
I don’t know if I have the words to adequately express what it means to our community to be selected for the Culture of Health Prize…but I’ll try.
A century of declines in every metric of well-being — combined with a barrage of messages in popular culture that people in rural America aren’t as smart or as sophisticated as people on the coasts — has a profound impact on the psyche of a community. It’s easy to give up. That’s part of why so much of middle America is emptying out. Those that stay are faced with tremendous odds to access services and amenities needed to live a healthy lifestyle.
We began this journey nearly 10 years ago, when Allen County was ranked 94 out of 105 counties in overall health. While residents may recognize that things are bad, it’s still shocking to be ranked that low. It was the impetus for us to set a common goal: to become the healthiest rural county in Kansas.
It would take some work to recognize the Allen County then in what exists now. We have a bike share system and miles of scenic bike trails, with more being developed. We have thriving community gardens, farmers markets, and, with the coming-soon grocery store in Iola, Kansas, even more access to healthy foods. We have a new hospital, new federally qualified health center, and new medical and dental providers. Communities have passed policies such as Tobacco 21, Complete Streets, the Utility Shutoff Cold Weather Rule, and established a countywide Drug Court. Businesses like the Gates Corporation implemented workplace wellness policies, like tobacco-free campuses.
And most importantly, everyday residents are taking action. They aren’t waiting for elected officials. Our communities are advocating for themselves, and spurring the improvements in health that the Culture of Health Prize has now recognized.
The people in Allen County work hard, but in a quiet way. They don’t seek fancy recognitions or awards or acknowledgments. They know that we are facing difficult odds, and they are realists.
Given this backdrop, it was inspiring to me that, when the judges were here, our normally modest, reserved people were so proud, enthusiastic and happy about this community they have built and improved together. They came out of their businesses to wave at the bus with the judges as it went by. It seemed like everyone stood a little taller.
It means so much to the people of this community to have their hard work recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at a national level. It’s an important part of the emotional fuel that people need to keep doing the work. And we want very much to advance the cause of improving health in rural communities across the nation in concert with the other seven Prize communities across the country that were named today.
Something special is happening in Allen County — we are fundamentally changing, for the better, how we live. And we will keep steadily and quietly working toward our goal: being the healthiest rural county in Kansas.
We’ll get there.
Learn more about Allen County’s work, as well as this year’s other Prize winners, through a collection of videos, photos, and more at www.rwjf.org/Prize.