When Michael Kearns looked at the analytics of his 142nd Assembly District three years ago, he didn't like what he saw in terms of health and well-being.
Erie County – including much of the Southtowns and Buffalo, which make up the district – ranked 54th out of 62 counties in the New York State health rankings. It would fall to 57th the following year.
Despite ebbs and flows in the numbers – chronicled by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation – the numbers remained alarming through last year:
– It ranked 58th in terms of the physical environment, when air pollution, drinking water quality, severe housing problems and the percentage of people who drive to work solo (81 percent) are considered.
– Nearly one in six people were in fair to poor physical health. Roughly the same ratio smoked. One in five drank alcohol excessively.
"We've got to bring the numbers down," Kearns said. "Our community is failing when it comes to health and wellness. We're in a drought and it's going to catch up to us in the future."
Kearns has worked with the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo during the last 2½ years to establish the Healthiest District Initiative, an effort to improve the numbers by establishing better health policies, recruiting partners to help residents build healthier lives, and better connecting those residents to wellness resources in Western New York.
The effort started in schools. The Buffalo, Lackawanna, Orchard Park and West Seneca districts have worked together the last two years to lay the groundwork for more health and wellness education, with the hope that their momentum will one day spill into homes and business communities, and among older adults.
"By building capacity among the school districts, instead of working in isolation, we're finding more resources to bring to our kids, resources we've lacked," said Tracy Spagnolo, initiative representative with West Seneca schools and principal at Winchester Elementary School.
The initiative has taken an "On your mark, get set, go" approach. Key players shared what that's looked like – and expressed gratitude that Kearns has vowed to help bring the effort countywide since leaving the State Legislature to become Erie County clerk this month.
"We've got to make sure this continues," Spagnolo said. "This is such a new, great direction in education, to actually talk to other school districts, and tap into other people's resources. It has been very powerful. It's not just developing Common Core education, it's developing the whole child."
[RELATED: See Erie County health ranking information at the bottom of this story]
ON YOUR MARK
Kearns, a Buffalo Common Council member from 2006 to 2012, met Philip Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute, when he joined the Council. Haberstro has been in his job for a generation, was a key proponent for public smoking restrictions, and has spent the last decade advocating policies across the region that make it easier for residents to gain access to health care, better nutrition information and more opportunities to be physically active.
The two were among those in 2008 to advocate for Complete Streets legislation in the city of Buffalo, which requires the city to consider bicyclists, pedestrians and those who use public transportation when streets are built or improved. More than 80 miles of bike lanes have been added since. Meanwhile, a growing number of elected officials across the region also have embraced greater public use of parks, playgrounds, trails and waterfronts.
"When you look at the assets from within the community that can be applied to the Healthiest District Initiative, we're really blessed," Haberstro said. "We have a lot. But what it takes is leadership. Kneejerk reactions are not going to change culture. It's a process that takes time."
Reports of lagging health and well-being in the region weighed on Kearns during his Assembly years, culminating in the idea for the Healthiest District Initiative, one that he and Haberstro thought could start in school districts in the 142nd District and grow from there. As far as they know, there has been no similar effort in New York or other states.
First, they needed buy-in from four distinct districts, with unique strengths and challenges, so they met with the superintendents.
"We didn't sit down to be prescriptive," Kearns said. "What we heard in each of the districts was a different set of parameters and needs. I didn't do any legislation on this. I wanted it to be voluntary. Educators are on the front lines dealing with children every day. If they value this and they know it's important, then we know we're doing the right thing."
Orchard Park, a wealthy district, had an abundance of youth programs, including sports powerhouses, but little diversity. West Seneca was a more typical middle-class district. Lackawanna was a smaller, poorer district with limited resources. Buffalo, too, struggled economically, but many in the private and public sectors already had started to help make improvements.
Still, common themes emerged. There were concerns about mental health, opioid abuse, child obesity, and that the student population – which, as is the case for county residents in general – had become too sedentary.
"Even though socioeconomically, family members in the districts may be in a different income category, we're finding out that the young people today are facing the same kinds of crisis points," Kearns said. "This is giving people the opportunity to share ideas."
Kearns also visited with leaders of Catholic Health, which operates Mercy Hospital, the largest employer in the Assembly District. He met with key business leaders, enlisted help from the Independent Health Foundation and began meeting monthly with representatives of the four school districts to talk about ways they could work together on health and wellness efforts.
"We asked them to share their best practices and Buffalo took a leadership role," Haberstro said.
"What I like about the Healthiest District Initiative is that it's trying to pull together different districts to potentially share some resources," Orchard Park Schools Superintendent Matthew McGarrity said. "A lot of times there are opportunities for grants and when you have a share with other districts, colleges, community colleges and local businesses, or other municipalities, it helps when you're trying to go after funding for kids.
"I would like to get to a point where the districts start doing events together so that our kids can experience kids from different districts and different backgrounds. It's always a great opportunity for all of our kids."
District representatives, Kearns and Wellness Institute staff, started their work by encouraging surveys of health and wellness needs.
"Leadership from within the school districts becomes important," Haberstro said, as is building relationships and trust.
The group looked at metrics. Each district has wellness policies. Buffalo shared its robust program strategies, including a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention School Health Index that allows districts to measure support across the district when it comes to student and staff health. Another CDC program allows districts to quantify student trends and behaviors.
Districts also were making their own inroads as the initiative began. Buffalo Public Schools added 35 more physical education teachers. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County landed a grant to help the Lackawanna and Niagara Falls districts bring healthier foods into communities that are considered food deserts. Orchard Park High School athletic improvements were part of a $24.3 million facilities upgrade across the district.
As part of the initiative process, the Wellness Institute also brought in the Mental Health Association of Erie County to provide another resource.
"There also has to be personal responsibility," Kearns said. "This is where I've come up with a health and wellness pledge. In life, we all make choices. Government can help facilitate things like Complete Streets, like making an investment in our waterfront, making investments in infrastructure, making our streets walkable, improving access to bicycles. But in the end, we can't do the work for you."
With Kearns in a new role, and eager to expand the initiative, he has added an "s" onto the official name of the effort, now calling it the Healthiest Districts Initiative, as in school districts.
A representative of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district was among those earlier this week who attended the latest monthly meeting.
All five districts look to work together in May during a state park cleanup day.
"A lot of times were so busy in our districts doing what we do for kids ... but this is a natural time to build in sharing," McGarrity said.
Other efforts already have borne fruit.
The new track at Orchard Park Quaker Field served as the site late last year for the district's first fall walk.
A $2.5 million effort to renovate Pierce Field at Mulroy Park in South Buffalo, completed before the initiative began, served as a model for future projects. Kearns helped arrange state funding for the project, while other major contributors included the City of Buffalo, Buffalo Bills and, particularly, The Buffalo Legacy Project, a nonprofit group. Renovations included a new synthetic turf field where kids often can be found in better weather playing flag football, soccer and lacrosse.
Last year on Father's Day, Kearns and others also launched an annual Father Baker run, in which wraps were served instead of hot dogs at the race's end.
West Seneca is undertaking a walkability study that includes $300,000 in state support. Spagnolo is ramping up Winchester Elementary School for initiative-related efforts she hopes to bring to other district elementary schools next school year.
In Lackawanna, with help from Cornell Cooperative Extention, the Lunch Box Bistro – operated by special needs students and their teacher, Jen Willats, has become a healthy alternative for breakfast and lunch.
That's just been the start, said Judith Faircloth, district parent-family community outreach coordinator, funded under federal Title 1 for districts in poverty.
"Being a small district, we don't get the same perks as Buffalo – the big corporations giving us money, for instance – so for us one of the biggest benefits was connecting with different districts," Faircloth said. "Buffalo opened their arms to us and invited me to be part of everything they were doing with health and wellness. I was able to make a lot of connections. Because of that, we've gotten exercise programs for our kids, Soccer for Success, Boys on the Right Track, lots of programs."
UB Pediatric Dentistry has visited middle school students in Lackawanna and through her new contacts, Faircloth also was able to interest Independent Health in bringing its Good for the Neighborhood program into Lackawanna.
"We've got to make sure this continues," said Spagnolo, the initiative rep for West Seneca. "This is such a new, empowering direction in education, to actually talk to other school districts, and tap into other people's resources. It not just developing Common Core education, it's developing the whole child."
ERIE COUNTY HEALTH RANKINGS
Erie County health rankings in 2015 – the most recent year available as part of a national study – were alarmingly low in key categories among 62 New York State counties, while also showing the county has resources available to turn the tide.
The rankings, released late last year, weigh longevity and quality of life equally in determining the rankings below. Quality of life is broken down by health behaviors (30 percent), clinical care (20 percent), social and economic factors (40 percent), and physical environment (10 percent).
Health Outcomes: 50
Length of life: 59
Quality of life: 43
Health behaviors: 27
These categories consider adult smoking and obesity, access to food and exercise opportunities, alcohol consumption and related driving deaths, and sexually transmitted diseases and teen births.
Clinical care: 10
This category considers the percentage of uninsured residents (7 percent, versus 8 percent of top U.S. performers and 10 percent statewide), the number per capita of primary care doctors, dentists and mental health providers (at or slightly above state levels in all three categories), diabetes monitoring and mammography screening (below top U.S. performers and state level).
Social and economic factors: 35
Considers high school graduation rates (82 percent, versus 95 percent of top performers, 79 percent in NYS), college attendance, unemployment (5.4 percent; higher than top U.S. and NYS), child poverty (24 percent; twice top U.S., 2 percentage point higher than NYS), income inequality, single-parent households (38 percent versus 21 percent top U.S., 35 percent statewide), social associations (10.1; higher than state, half that of top U.S.); violent crime and injury deaths (58; higher than top U.S. and NYS).
Physical environment: 58
Considers air pollution, drinking water violations, severe housing problems, driving alone to work (81 percent versus 71 percent top U.S., 53 percent NYS), long commute (24 percent; top U.S. 15 percent, NYS, 36 percent).
Source: County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute
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