Lawrence has long been a health conscious community, with many people and organizations dedicated to wellness. But those efforts usually took place independent of each other.
Five years ago this month, stakeholders in the areas of health and wellness came together to start LiveWell Lawrence, a coalition that supports projects in the community that promote nutritious eating and physical activity.
Since its forming in 2008, LiveWell Lawrence, which now has more than 100 community partners, has been behind such initiatives as school gardens, improving wellness in the workplace, and making it easier for people in the community to walk or ride their bikes. And the group's work continues: Cutting down on the increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease doesn't happen overnight. "I don't think we'll truly be able to evaluate our success for another 10, 20, 30 years," said Marilyn Hull, one of the founders of LiveWell Lawrence.
The organization got its start after the Kansas Health Foundation began looking into ways to reduce the instance of chronic disease across the state. It awarded the Douglas County Community Foundation a grant to help find solutions in the Lawrence area. A steering committee was formed, meeting for the first time in October 2008. Since then, LiveWell Lawrence has focused on changing the environment and policies in Lawrence to make it easier for people to live healthy, active lives, whether at school, the workplace or in the neighborhood.
Creating healthy kids
In 2006, Carrie Mandigo and some fellow parents were discussing how they could get their young children to be more physically active. After hearing about the idea in Runner's World magazine, they started a marathon club at a local Catholic school and then at Langston Hughes Elementary, where the initiative took off. A group of kids meets regularly before or after school, to walk or run, and are rewarded whenever they accumulate 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon.
"It teaches them to be persistent, that it's not about instant gratification, but consistent exercise." said Mandigo, a mother of two. "It's not easy to do a marathon, and it's not easy to go out there ever week and walk or run a few miles."
A few years ago, organizers got the idea to spread the idea to other local elementary schools. They got a grant from LiveWell Lawrence to create and dispense marathon-club starter kits. Now, almost every elementary school in Lawrence, and even a few outside of it, have similar clubs.
LiveWell Lawrence has also been behind include the world's largest community workout that drew nearly 3,000 people, the EatWell LiveWell restaurant challenge, school fitness assessments, an increase in referrals to the tobacco quit line, and healthier options at the local food pantry.
Starting a communitywide conversation
Cindy Johnson, the current chair and a founding member of LiveWell Lawrence, says she got involved with the organization because it had a goal that, as a physical therapist, she had long been working toward.
"For me, the passion comes from helping people achieve health and physical-activity goals. That's why I became a physical therapist 25 years ago," she said.
And LiveWell Lawrence helped spark a community-wide conversation about wellness, involving city and county leadership, business owners, health care providers, nonprofit organizations and the faith community, she added.
LiveWell Lawrence will mark its fifth anniversary with a community celebration from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Abe and Jake’s Landing, 8 E. Sixth St., in Lawrence. The event is free and open to the public, and will feature state and local officials discussing the impact LiveWell Lawrence has made on the health of the community.
The 2013 Douglas County Community Health Plan included five goals to help make Lawrence a healthier community, two of which LiveWell Lawrence is taking on: creating more opportunities for physical activity and improving access to healthy foods.
The coalition recently spawned four work groups it hopes will address these issues. The groups focus on bettering the health of children aged 0-18, creating more opportunities for biking and walking, improving workplace wellness, and making healthy food more affordable and accessible.
Susan Johnson, a founding member and former chair of LiveWell Lawrence, said that while she's been involved in many coalitions and leadership teams over the years, none have been as successful as this one.
"Before, we were working in silos and not really collaborating as a whole community, but when we work together, we can make change happen." said Johnson, the family and consumer sciences agent for Kansas State University Research and Extension in Douglas County. "The atmosphere is right for this kind of discussion, with more and more focus on local foods and our environment and getting out and doing physical activity. It's a great time to live in Lawrence."