CORDIA – For the past three years, Alice Whitaker has seen something different happening in the Cordia community, and at Cordia School in particular.
More people are exercising or taking part in physical activity. And for the students, there has been a sea change in the way things used to be. Gone are the sugary sweet sodas and candy bars, the bake sales and cake walk fundraisers.
Cordia, in short, is getting healthier, or, at the very least, the community is getting a wake-up call about the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.
It was through a federal grant three years ago that Whitaker, the director of Lotts Creek Community School at Cordia, was able to institute a wellness program at the school. Now they have a community fitness center open to the public, a physical education teacher that works with grade school students, and with the introduction of new healthy guidelines, the school annually meets high standards of food service and physical activity, receiving recognition from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for their efforts.
From three years ago to now, Whitaker noted, there has certainly been a change in mindset at Cordia, located on the Knott County side of Lotts Creek, only a mile from the Perry County line. The wellness program, she believes, has not only provided opportunity for physical activity, but also awareness about issues in the community such as high rates of heart disease and diabetes.
In a recent study of county health rankings in Kentucky, Knott County ranked 107th out of 120 counties with rates of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity far off from the state average. But in the Cordia community, Whitaker believes they are scratching the surface of a larger epidemic.
“I don’t think there is any question that we’ve made a dent into the health issues, which is what our intent is,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker and Jeff Combs, director of the wellness program, received a bit of good news this past week as well, as the federal Health Resources and Services Administration renewed their grant which will allow them to not only continue the program, but expand it as well. Their initial grant was set to run out at the end of April, and without an infusion of new funds, the program would have taken a major hit.
“There would have been no wellness program as such,” Whitaker noted. “We could have gone on and limped along, had a fitness center and people just volunteer, but nothing to what we’ve done.”
News of the grant renewal came only a few days after Whitaker, Combs and students at the school met with representatives from Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Hal Rogers’ office in Hazard about the need to continue to work to improve the health of Kentuckians.
Whitaker said she was grateful to be able to meet with those representatives, and thanked them for their help.
But now that they know the program will continue, Combs noted that it is full steam ahead. Individual efforts like providing meals rather than simple snacks for students after school will continue, while a new meals initiative will get off the ground.
Along with healthy eating, Whitaker said they also recognize in a school with a large percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch, that some students may simply not be getting enough to eat at home.
“We’re sure that it happens, and that’s why the after school meal is not a snack,” Whitaker explained. “We have an actual healthy meal.”
They also hope to supplement the nutrition that students are already receiving at school through a backpack program, which will work much like ones already in place at other schools in which those students gets bags of food to take home.
Another planned expansion will be, through the utilization of some of the funds from Lotts Creek, the hiring of a community service worker through the University of Kentucky North Fork Valley Community Health Center. An important part of the wellness program is that people can obtain referrals for different kinds of care, and this community service worker can then follow up on those referrals and thus gauge the needs out in the community.
“We have done over 500 referrals for eyeglasses, for dental work, for medical care, and now that person will follow up with them and make sure that they’ve got everything they need,” Combs said. “A lot of it is connecting dots; a lot of it is finding stuff that we need to be doing.”
But making a major change in the health of the community is major undertaking, and one that will likely take root best with the younger generation, Whitaker said. That is one reason why the school has physical education now for every grade level, and not just high school.
“We made sure we had those P.E. minutes,” Combs added. “That helps build into the lifestyle. If they’re not exercising at school, they’re not exercising at home.”
The school also adheres to the policy of no sugary sodas, and the vending machines in the hallways are stocked full of glistening bottled water. Whitaker noted that Helen Ritchie, the Knott County Board of Education’s food service director, also helped the school implement its healthy menus, which they have been serving for some time now.
Other projects could be on the horizon, such as smoking cessation and obtaining low-impact exercise equipment for older people who may want to use the fitness center, which itself is already filled with exercise equipment. Combs noted that 700 people have signed up to use the center, and they average about 13 people each evening, with another six people using the school’s campus as a walking track.
And in the student population at least, they are seeing a difference with the way some students are approaching fitness. And for the time being, they hope to continue to see that difference as the wellness program at Cordia continues.