Center offers information to communities

By Lori O'Brien

Correspondent



HOLYOKE "Energy and passion."

Those are two key elements that can spark people to action and for area residents seeking to make a difference in their neighborhood or community, the Western Massachusetts Center for Healthy Communities (WMCHC) can help, according to Jeff Harness, MPH, Director.

During a recent interview with Reminder Publications, Harness outlined how WMCHC can lend a hand to people who have ideas but aren't sure how to take the next step.

"We help people by using research to guide them to be effective," said Harness.

A case in point is the Regional Employment Board (REB) of Hampden County, Inc., based in Springfield.

The REB had received a $20,000 "Pathways to Success by 21 (P-21)" planning grant to address vulnerable youth, ages 16 to 24, who are out-of-school, without diplomas, unemployed, or without the necessary skills to access good careers and to become productive citizens.

In light of substantial data indicating that Latino and African-American males from Springfield and Holyoke between the ages of 16 and 24 are at particular risk of poor educational and employment outcomes, the Hampden County P-21 project focused its initial efforts on these populations, according to Brad A. Sperry, REB's Director of Planning and Policy Research.

The REB chose the WMCHC because they submitted an "articulated response that addressed the key issues in a comprehensive and well-organized manner, and they were a highly regarded local organization with demonstrated past performance doing similar work," said Sperry.

Sperry added that the WMCHC brought expertise on youth development issues, leading focus groups and strategic planning.

"They also had a good understanding of local agencies and resources," said Sperry.

The WMCHC worked with the REB to facilitate planning meetings and two focus groups with at-risk youth in Springfield and Holyoke. Sperry is confident that with the WMCHC's input, the action steps put in place will now help to better align services for at-risk youth and improve educational and employment outcomes for the targeted population.

Sperry lauded the WMCHC for its efforts saying, "They were conscientious, easy to work with and they delivered a high quality finished product on time."

WMCHC services include community health planning, evaluations, organizational development, prevention program development and professional development. Funding for the WMCHC is derived mostly from a state contract with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton has been awarded that contract for more than a decade, according to Harness.

Harness explained that WMCHC is a program of the hospital but the hospital's role is primarily administrative.

"The hospital benefits by having access to our skills and resources and their support also shows their commitment to community health," said Harness.

The state contract allows WMCHC to work with six communities Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton/Amherst area, Greenfield and surrounding Franklin County towns, Pittsfield and North Adams. All other communities in Western Massachusetts have access to its public health library and are welcome to call, according to Harness.

"We are willing to work with any group within the realm of our mission which involves youth, substance abuse prevention and community health," he said.

Services are also available on a fee-for-service basis at $125 an hour. In hardship cases, the WMCHC is willing to be flexible.

"More and more, we are working with groups that are a mix of neighborhood people, schools and public officials," said Harness. "When it works that way, that can produce the best results. Because we work in a behind-the-scenes capacity, we often quietly share in the success stories of community projects."

Harness cited as one example that Western Massachusetts has eight federal drug-free-communities grants.

"This is a great accomplishment for the region and we've had a role in helping several of those groups apply for funding and/or implement their programs," he added. "Since we are in a consulting role, it is sometimes taken on faith that using data, using research to guide program development, and using appropriate methods to evaluate them, will lead to a decrease in youth substance abuse. It may take several years to see changes in data since interventions communities do now will impact rates down the road."

What is a "healthy community?"

Simply put, a healthy community is one where people actively participate in civic life, he explained.

"That might mean voting, cleaning up a park, serving on a town committee or going to school events," said Harness. "The more people work together to solve problems, create a vision for their futures, and rely on local control and decision-making, the better."

Being welcoming of different perspectives and cultures is another sign of a healthy community, as is finding the right balance between preservation and development, he added.

Harness spoke of health as a natural outcome when a community works well together.

"Research into healthy communities is still in an early stage but there is growing evidence that there is a relationship between how a community functions and a variety of health outcomes," he said, adding, "it seems to work best when the energy and ideas come from grassroots citizen involvement combined with support and engagement from community leadership. Each community is different and each will have a different vision. What seems to make the difference is when people can work together to solve problems and make decisions."

Currently, the WMCHC is working with several area groups to help them learn how to think about prevention in a different way from how communities and schools have historically thought about it.

"We're helping them move away from ineffective strategies such as mock car crashes and speakers sharing their stories of addiction to helping them understand that youth live their lives within the context of a peer group, a family, school and the larger neighborhood and community," said Harness. "Our role is to help groups use data to understand local issues and to use research as a guide to developing strategies and programs."

Another component of the WMCHC is its library that provides an extensive collection of books, videos, curricula and other materials on a wide variety of prevention-related topics. Materials range from alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention to violence prevention, STD/HIV prevention, nutrition and physical activity.

"The library is designed to be used by anyone who is developing or running a prevention program," said Harness.

The WMCHC Library is open to anyone who lives or works in Western Massachusetts and resources may be borrowed free of charge. Harness stressed that the materials are selected to meet the needs of prevention workers, such as educators, school health personnel, health care providers and human service workers. Parents, coalition groups and community leaders can also benefit from the wealth of information offered.

Area residents may also view the library's entire collection on-line through a link at www.westernmasshealthycommunities.org. Library hours are weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; other hours are available by appointment.

The WMCHC website also offers a plethora of available grants, as well as timely workshops and conferences scheduled across the state.

"A lot of information comes our way and we try to choose things that are interesting, local, relevant to prevention and affordable," said Harness. "We try to focus on workshops that have a population focus as opposed to something that is for clinicians or other health care practitioners."

When asked what parents can do individually for their children the answer was simple.

"Provide a clear and consistent message to kids of what you expect of them," said Harness, adding that first and foremost, be a role model. "Also, show an interest in your kids and their future plans."

For a neighborhood or community in general, Harness said people working together for a shared vision will - in time - decrease crime and substance abuse.

The WMCHC can help behind the scenes with committed individuals and organizations who want to tackle the tough issues, added Harness.

The WMCHC is located at 489 Whitney Ave., and is one of six statewide programs sponsored by the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities and MassForum.

For more information, call (413) 540-0600 or (800) 850-3880, or visit www.westernmasshealthycommunities.org.

If you would like to be added to the mailing list for CenterLine, the WMCHC newsletter, training announcements and other mailings, send an e-mail to Miriam Jusino at Miriam_Jusino@cooley-dickinson.org.

***

HOLYOKE The Western Massachusetts Center for Healthy Communities (WMCHC) will offer several training programs in the coming months, including:

"Marketing for Health," Oct. 27, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., by Lauri Turkovsky, MEd., substance abuse prevention specialist. Turkovsky will discuss the tricks of the marketing trade to make a prevention campaign and program marketing materials as effective and eye-catching as possible.

"Introduction to Grant Writing Process," Nov. 15, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., by Gail Weirick, MS, WMCHC's Assistant Director. Weirick will review the process of seeking funds through grants and the basic elements of a grant proposal.

"Getting Your Message Out: Working with the Media," Dec. 6, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., by Ruth Ever, MPH, prevention specialist. Ever will cover the media basics: writing a press release; talking to the press; identifying what is newsworthy; honing your message and reaching your audience.

"Using Focus Groups and Surveys to Collect Data," Jan. 17, 12:30 to 4 p.m., by Janet Grant, MSPH, substance abuse prevention specialist. Grant will discuss how to design and implement a successful focus group or survey.

The cost is $25 per person per workshop. A limited number of scholarships are also available.

For more information on any of these programs or future training seminars, call (413) 540-0600, ext. 3124, or visit www.westernmasshealthycommunities.org.

 
 
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