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.