CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2012, KEYS 4 HealthyKids created walking trails and parks, grew vegetables in creative ways, upgraded a food pantry menu, started a farmers market and worked with more than 800 Kanawha County kids.
Now KEYS is expanding to nine other counties. "We're looking for 10 groups of people that want to work together to improve the health of their communities," said pediatrician Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, the group's director.
Next month, the group will award grants and technical support to communities in the nine counties that border Kanawha County: Boone, Clay, Fayette, Jackson, Lincoln, Nicholas, Putnam, Raleigh and Roane. "Eventually, we'd like to take this statewide," Jeffrey said.
"The way we define communities is pretty loose," she said. "It can start with a nonprofit organization, a club, a town, or a county. In Clendenin, it started with the Women's Club and the local health center. But each group has to have at least three community partners. The first thing you need is folks around a table, ready to work together."
KEYS groups create projects ranging from community gardening projects, walking trails and biking lanes to health plans for the whole community.
As the website for the Healthy Clendenin project says, "The health of our community is plagued with obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Many people say they would eat better if healthy food (vegetables and fruits, for example) were more affordable. People also say they would exercise more if they had access to places where they could exercise."
So far, A Healthy Clendenin, created with a KEYS grant, has created a community walking trail, secured a land donation for a new city park, started a farmers market and worked with schoolkids on nutrition, Jeffrey said.
"The mayor was so impressed with the number of people who showed up for the walkability study for the trail, he pledged to repair the sidewalks. That's the magic that can happen when people join forces and get started."
"These grants are much more than a funding opportunity," said project coordinator Judy Crabtree. "The grants are not large, but the community participants will be trained in strategies for making the place where they live more healthy over the long haul. That's invaluable. They'll be able to actually see how other places have done it. They'll get expert help and the chance to network with other communities."
"When projects are created by a community process like this, they're more likely to last," Jeffrey said. The ten new communities will learn a step-by-step process that helps communities form partnerships, assess strengths and weaknesses, and make a plan for going forward, she said. They will use the KEYS strategy toolkit, tested on 2012 projects.
Jeffrey, medical director of the Children's Medicine Center at Women and Children's Hospital, helped start KEYS in 2010 with a Robert Wood Johnson grant to help communities lower children's risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease through better diet and more physical activity. "It was a group effort," she said.
In Kanawha County, the 2013 KEYS spring garden project will involve 26 schools.
The 2013 projects will be funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, among others.
"This is how change happens, step by step, community by community, communities helping each other," Crabtree said.
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" has been 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.