Regina Theisen wants to give health back to the people.
That's why the State of Alaska public health nurse organized the "Got Health" Community Celebration at Soldotna High School Saturday.
"We are in charge of our own health. We should not give that charge to anybody else," she said.
Saturday's multi-agency event featured activities like face painting, fencing, crafts and Native Youth Olympic competitions as well as a "visioning" meeting for residents to brainstorm on community health and well-being. There was also a free jambalaya dinner and concert by Anchorage tribal funk band Pamyua.
"We as a community have the power to continue to work and make the community healthier from a broader level," Theisen said. That means spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically, socially and environmentally, she said.
The visioning discussion brought people together to celebrate what the community has that promotes health, suggest improvements and talk about how to make them happen. Through a nationally developed process called MAPP, mobilizing for action through planning and partnership, people rotated to different yellow butcher paper covered roundtables set up in the high school library draw, write and talk about their ideas.
People talked about what they liked on the central Kenai Peninsula in terms of health and well-being like the Kenai River, Boys and Girls Club, hospital, food bank, bike path, ski trails, playgrounds and various outdoor recreation activities.
But one thing that attendees almost unanimously wanted is the creation of a comprehensive, online community calendar.
"I think we have a lot going on in our community but sometimes it's fragmented," said Tami Marsters, also a public health nurse and one of the discussion facilitators. There's too much going on in one day, she said, explaining that a Homer Electric Association Energy Fair and a Safe Kids Snowmobile safety event both took place on Saturday. Jeanette Desimone, who works with Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, who also helped with the discussions, said her groups talked about needing more to do in the community.
"We focused primarily on having more low-cost activities for people of all ages," she said. Other hot topics for her discussions were transportation like car-pooling and even a zen center.
This theme of embracing community events and getting acquainted with neighbors resonated throughout the discussions.
Deb Nyquist, a Dena'ina Health educator, said her tables talked about "celebrating the mosaic of what we are as a community" and also having a place to do that.
Like a community center where people can walk or swim or communicate across generations, she said.
Debbie Shuey, an early childhood consultant and facilitator said her table's discussions supported that idea as well.
"The theme that really went around the tables was about networking," she said. "It's really important to have that. We get into these isolated pods and don't have communication."
Other ideas on how to improve the community's health and well-being centered around food. Community gardens, supported agriculture, schoolyard gardens, nutrition and cooking classes and healthier food choices for children were all ideas talked about around the room.
"Food is a great way to bring the community together," said Eliza Eller, an attendee from Ionia, the therapeutic eco-village in Kasilof.
Attendees also said they want to see the Unity Trail completed for safer activities.
And how are these ideas going to come to fruition?
By volunteering, involving yourself and engaging your neighbors, people at the tables said. Their voices bled together with thoughts on how to make it happen, how to create a better community.
"The point of this is for communities to really embrace the idea of working toward being a healthier community," said Jayne Andreen, a state health promotions manager that helped with the visioning event.
She said that nationwide more than 700 communities have held similar meetings and in Alaska. Homer, Juneau, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, have identified their own community goals through the MAPP process.
"Each and every community comes up with its own priorities," Andreen said.
Take Ketchikan, for example. Community participants decided to address the issue of teen violence through a visioning session and worked to obtain a grant to employ a dating violence specialist.
In Homer, residents want to focus on quality-of-life issues, substance abuse and access to healthier foods, she said.
"It gets people thinking along the lines of healthy communities," Andreen said.
And a healthier population could affect the bottom-line.
"It's a lost more cost-effective to keep from getting sick than it is to be sick," she said.
Holly Nagasako, a young mother and Clam Gulch resident, said she left the discussion Saturday feeling hopeful and excited about what's to come, especially the community calendar website.
"It seems like something that can be accessible," she said. "I'm into helping the community be better for my family and children."
And that's how Theisen wanted attendants of Saturday's community health celebration to leave.
"I think it's just the beginning. We'd like to celebrate annually," she said.
And hopefully by next year the initiatives identified at this session will be a reality, she said.
"There's nothing more important than our health," Theisen said.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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