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Focus on Rural Health

Building a Better Community

By Jessica Rosencrans on

Rural communities are notorious in the healthcare sector for the catchphrase "older, sicker, and poorer."

And it's often true: Residents in these areas do face increased barriers to care and limited options for providers, generally creating poorer health outcomes. Social isolation can compound these factors and impact mental health, in addition to physical health.

However, rural communities in North Dakota are working to reduce these barriers and strengthen the health of their citizens through a variety of programs.

One such program, is the Building Healthier Rural Community (BUILD) Grants Program. Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota (BCBSND) Caring Foundation, in partnership with the Center for Rural Health (CRH) at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences, the BUILD Grants Program provides funding to North Dakota communities to address health disparities.

The BUILD Grants Program provides awardees between $5,000 and $7,500 to put towards their communities and transform the health and well-being of their residents.

Only recently, the 2022 grant placed a focus on stimulating new thinking around physical activity and wellness programs, while the 2023 cycle is aimed at addressing the social determinants of health. To that end, recipients of the grant in 2023 will be provided funding to address:

  • economic stability
  • education access and quality
  • healthcare access and quality
  • neighborhoods and built environments
  • social and community context

Prioritizing Healthy Living

North Dakota with Adams County highlighted, and city of Hettinger marked West River Health Services (WRHS), located in Hettinger, North Dakota, was a recipient of the 2022 grant funding.

"We discovered that over 90% of respondents in Adams County wanted to see personal enrichment or professional development classes held in the community, such as yoga, dance, and self-defense," said Cindy Ham, director of community relations at WRHS. "Community members also noted that healthy living classes should be a priority, and 65% of respondents said they would enroll in an enrichment class or training course."

The process for WRHS started with a Community Health Needs Assessment, after WRHS identified a top need of the community being more activity availability for children and youth. WRHS then conducted various additional surveys to study the need for additional enrichment and recreational activities.

kayaking To address these community interests, WRHS collaborated with the Hettinger Chamber of Commerce, the Adams County Development Corporation, and the Adams County Library. An idea arose to provide the community with recreational equipment available for check out using a library card.

Utilizing existing recreational venues, parks, and lakes was a priority.

A Novel Idea

Ultimately, a recreation library was created, allowing community members to expand the use of already existing recreational opportunities in Adams County and instill a mindset of outdoor and physical activities as fun and healthy alternatives.

We do not have the luxury of being able to quickly run to a big chain store to get equipment in small rural areas.

"We do not have the luxury of being able to quickly run to a big chain store to get equipment in small rural areas," Ham said. "If local stores do carry recreational items, there are typically limited options."

The benefits reaped from regular physical activity are clear. The Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans states that physical activity helps prevent heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, dementia, type 2 diabetes, depression, and eight types of cancer. Being physically active can also help manage many conditions people already have such as osteoarthritis, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, and ADHD. In addition, active people generally live longer than those who live sedentary lives.

However, to attain the health benefits from physical activity, individuals need to choose to be active participants. The recreation library allows for more fitness options and increases access to equipment needed at no cost to the user. Items available through the recreation library include ice skates, Frisbee golf sets, gardening tools, jump ropes, bicycles, kayaks, pickleball sets, and spike ball.

"Another bonus of this project is it helps those who don't want to buy or do not have the means to purchase and store equipment." Ham continued, "The recreation library has been well received by community members. We have great community support both financially and through the good will created by this program."

Currently, the recreation library is following Adams County Library Hours, with equipment available to be checked out 18 hours a week.

Other 2022 awardees of the BUILD Grants Program include:

Playing to Their Strengths

Holly Long

Holly Long, a project coordinator at CRH and principal investigator for the program, discussed the BUILD Grant Program's strengths.

"CRH has been awarding BCBSND rural health grants since 2001. Throughout the years, funding has been used for a variety of purposes, from hosting wellness programs, 5K fun runs, and nutrition classes to implementing services that reduce barriers to care," Long said. "One of the best things about this grant is that healthcare providers can tailor their program to fit their community's needs. Rural areas aren't a one-size-fits-all, and the BUILD Grants Program addresses that."

Rural areas aren't a one-size-fits-all, and the BUILD Grants Program addresses that.

Ham expressed her appreciation for the funding and encourages other communities to consider applying.

"We are grateful to have been chosen as a recipient of a BCBSND BUILD grant. It has allowed us to implement and grow our community health and wellness programs. With this generous funding, we are working towards meeting our goal of providing more recreational and physical activities for all members of our community."

Jessica Rosencrans Jessica Rosencrans

is the communication specialist with the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Grand Forks.