Embedded as an organization of the Northwestern Medical Center in Franklin and Grand Isle Vermont, RiseVT is a collaboration consisting of community-based wellness specialists, program managers, and health coaches focused on improving the healthy lifestyles where people live, work, learn and play. Its mission is to address the intersectional issues of equity and to work towards stronger wellness policies, healthier residents, improved quality of life, and lower healthcare costs. Its unique model allows communities to drive the initiatives and policies as long as everyone is working towards one holistic goal – “to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice, and the easiest choice the healthy choice.”
When asked how to engage a community to take action, Smith advises that it “calls for the fullness of time. It’s not something you go in and do. It takes relationships, it takes showing up, and it takes paying attention.” In fact, launching the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) campaign in the region was the result of paying attention to the fact that the Vermont State Board of Education was requiring all districts to pass a new wellness policy.
To ensure the local school boards did not pass mediocre policies, RiseVT worked in communities and advocated in support of a stronger wellness policy that represented the needs of the students. “It was important for us to come with data and statistics. When you come with information, solutions, and a willingness to get involved, the leadership starts to listen.” But the communities and parents advocated for more than stronger wellness policy language. They insisted the boards provide updates on policy implementation, and as a result, an administrator from each School Supervisory Board was assigned to spearhead the effort which would eventually be known as the WSCC campaign.
A grant from Voices for Healthy Kids enabled RiseVT to strengthen and focus the WSCC campaign, which Smith describes as a “framework for which communities, parents, administrators, school personnel, and staff can enter into a conversation together about the health and wellbeing of our children. It could result in stronger policy language for our wellness policies and will most likely result in a larger conversation about how all of these interacting pieces can create the conditions for a healthier school community.”
Knowing that one of the biggest roadblocks preventing community members from attending meetings is scheduling, RiseVT is intentional about when wellness meetings are scheduled and who is invited. Every quarter, each of the five school districts hosts a meeting with a topic that is predetermined by its committee members and communicated in advance. The timing of the meeting is also deliberate. In one district, the meeting is scheduled during the day, so teachers can take time off to attend, and for another district, the meeting is held right after school, so parents can conveniently participate. One thing is consistent throughout all of the meetings – “All of the people coming are concerned about the health and wellbeing of the children.”
The conversation has been transformative to the entire community. Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, a leader in developing a modern wellness policy for its students, implemented a wellness period in addition to the traditional physical education period. During this time students can choose among various wellness options – such as going to the gym or doing yoga – as long as it improves their wellbeing. Their success has become an example to other schools and districts in the area as they reassess their wellness policies.
At another WSCC meeting, a local school shared how they were dealing with excess food which was the effect of a new healthy school meal standard requiring more fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Students were asked to place their uneaten food in a refrigerator called the “Share Fridge.” This creative solution solved multiple issues at once. Those who were hungry during the school day or were facing a food insecurity situation at home could take out food from the fridge, which also kept food from being wasted.
For Lisa Curry, who is both a teacher and parent engaged in the WSCC campaign, the support from RiseVT and the ideas shared in WSCC meetings have impacted her personally and professionally. In addition to offering more movement opportunities for her kids, the focus on health and wellness has resulted in her ability to add flexible seating in her classrooms (e.g., yoga balls and pedal bikes) so that kids can choose the best study environment for them. They have also advocated for funding to plant an orchard on the school grounds.
Getting the students excited about trying new foods and about gardening is important to Curry who “values the importance of being healthy” because it signifies the beginning of a life-long habit for healthy eating and wellness. “In talking with my students and even my own son, they’re pretty excited about it. It’s an exciting time for us.”