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Get those counties moving!

Last winter, Jerry Linkenogger, Clay County Commission President, decided local officials need to get together and trade ideas on ways to help local people get fit.

"I read a newspaper article that really floored me," he said. "It said West Virginia University confirmed that more than one in four West Virginia fifth-graders is now obese. One in four already has high blood pressure. What's their future going to be? That leads straight to diabetes and heart disease."

Driving the narrow, winding roads of Clay County, he kept thinking about it. "If we don't do something now, we'll have unsolvable problems 10 years from now," he said.

"I kept wondering what people are doing in other counties," he said. So when Patti Hamilton, West Virginia Association of Counties director, proposed a health conference for local officials, Linkenogger quickly agreed to help.

Six months later, the first "Healthy Counties" conference will take place in Charleston, July 23-24, partnering with West Virginia University Extension Service and the Charleston Gazette's "The Shape We're In" series.

"Health considerations have not been a traditional part of a county commissioner's job, but I'm telling you, it's everyone's job now," Linkenogger said. "I used to be school superintendent, and I can tell you, the schools or doctors can't handle this problem alone."

"Adult diabetes is rampant," he said, "and it'll get a lot worse if we don't do something."

"Health is also economic development," Hamilton said. "Businesses want a healthy work force, and people want to move to places that offer healthy recreation possibilities. So there are a lot of reasons for local government to focus on this."

"Some counties have an easier time with this," Linkenogger said. "We're one of the state's poorest counties, and we don't have a lot of opportunities or facilities and resources that other counties have. But we're doing what we can, and we want to do more."

Clay County's school system took part in the state's "cooking from scratch" program this year, created a farmers' market, sponsored a yearly bike race and helped support an active health center. The high school has a biking club, and schools are increasing physical activity.

"I look forward to more ideas," Linkenogger said.

"We can build on the positive."

"This conference is just a start," Hamilton said.  "I'm calling it the Healthy Counties Initiative because we'll keep going after the conference ends.

"The theme is 'A healthy choice is your choice,' because we're looking at the positive side as well as the negative," she said.

West Virginia leads the nation in 10 out of 12 chronic conditions, including obesity, heart attack and diabetes, in Gallup Healthways' latest ranking. "But the flip side is, lots of West Virginians are finding ways to get fit. There's a fitness and recreation boom, and we can find ways to build on that and encourage it." Examples:

  • More than 300 girls in five counties run for fun after school in the volunteer-led "Girls on the Run" program. "It can happen anywhere people will organize it," said Terri Evans, Randolph-Tucker organizer. "Girls are hungry for it."
  • Wood County's River City Runners, a volunteer-operated walking/running club, has more than 1,000 members of all ages. "We've got people running every day, beginners and marathoners," said Sharon Marks, club president. City and county encouragement is crucial, she said.
  • In all six counties of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, high schools have started mountain bike clubs. "We hope to develop teams, then get them competing," said Health Department official Carrie Brainard.
  • In Ritchie County, the Economic Development Authority and North Bend State Park are planning an annual high school mountain biking competition. "Such events can bring in as much as $100,000 and get local kids biking in droves," said West Virginia Mountain Bike Association organizer Kim Coram.
  • Lincoln County commissioners have started funding small gyms in volunteer fire departments or other community centers in remote areas.
  • More than 300 Williamson residents joined walking teams this year to compete in "a race to Los Angeles."
  • In a state-county-private effort, the Boone County Commission matched a federal grant to build a pedestrian bridge bringing Madison's Wellness Trail into Danville. "This is both an economic development and public health project," Sen. Ron Stollings said.
  • In Pleasants County, surprised band boosters found that healthy snacks outsold some more traditional and less healthy food at games.
  • More than 375 miles of West Virginia train track have been converted to biking and walking trails.

"These are like puzzle pieces," Hamilton said. "Get enough of them going, and they add up to a community with healthy choices.

"West Virginia -- and any county or person -- can go either way," she said. "We've got a choice."

Hamilton wants attendees to leave with ideas about grantwriting, ways to mobilize volunteers, and new ways to work with state and federal agencies. "And ideas from each other about what they're already doing."

At the conference:

  • Chris Danley, CEO of Idaho's Vitruvian Planning, will show attendees how to assess county health needs and promote recreation and physical activity. "Companies and young professionals want to move to places that offer healthy options," he said. "This is economic development."
  • Sue Podis of the national Trust for America's Health will present ideas from communities nationwide and lead idea-trading discussions.
  • Marshall University's Richard Crespo will discuss ways that communities can prevent and control diabetes.
  • The West Virginia on the Move director will go over grants for physical activity projects, and West Virginia University Extension Service will go over its Summer Steps county walking competition.
  • The PEIA Wellness director will suggest ways communities can built on PEIA's weight management programs.

Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, will go over guidelines for projects under the state's recently-released $1.8 million Community Transformation Grant.

"I read that the state said they have only two months to spend that $1.8 million, and they weren't sure they can get it spent in two months," Hamilton said, "and I thought, 'Well, maybe we could help them.'

"Seriously, we're in the position to help," she said. "There's no need to give back any of that money."

The $1.8 million can be spent on farmers' markets, physical activity for children, chronic disease self-management classes, and smoking reduction, among other things. "Many counties would like to do or expand those things," Hamilton said.

"State and local people have got to work together," she said. "Obesity and chronic disease are overwhelming problems, so we've got to combine forces if we're going to get anywhere." Several state officials will attend the conference.

Lisa Dooley, West Virginia Municipal League director, will attend this year, but "next year, they'll be a co-sponsor," Hamilton said. "We're building."

For more information, go to www.wvaco.org. Reach Kate Long at (304) 348-1798 or katelong@wvgazette.com. "The Shape We're In" is supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


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