By JIMMY LAWTON
POTSDAM – In little more than a decade, the St. Lawrence County Health Initiative has grown from one part-time person to a $1 million operation with 11 full-time employees working to make local residents healthier.
The organization provides workplace wellness services, encourages restaurants to offer healthier menu items, runs afterschool recreation programs, sponsors teen pregnancy reduction programs, encourages community gardens and runs “I Can Feel Better” workshops.
But Executive Director Ruth Fishbeck said it wasn't always that way.
In 1999 the health initiative ran on a budget of $18,000 and sprang from a collaborative effort between Canton-Potsdam Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center. The hospitals enlisted help from the community to identify three of the more dire health-related needs in the county.
The group found that access to care, nutrition and physical activity, and substance use, especially youth tobacco use, were among the top concerns in the county.
To help target these problems the hospitals and other stakeholders helped establish the Health Initiative, which became its own 501(c)(3).
"We collaborate with other agencies, and we have representatives from them on our board," she said. "But we are our own organization."
Today, Fishbeck said the organization is led by a board of ten people, who represent member organizations. They include CPH, Claxton-Hepburn, Kinney Drugs, SUNY Potsdam, United Helpers Management Company Inc., St. Lawrence County Community Services, St. Lawrence County Social Services, St. Lawrence County Public Health, St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, E.J. Noble Hospital and Massena Memorial Hospital.
Although the companies and institutions have members on the Health Initiative board, Fishbeck says they do not finance the organization. "We don't get money from these organizations, but we get the benefit of their experience and their knowledge," she said.
Fishbeck said the collaboration allows all of the agencies to better meet the needs of the county. She said the different companies work hard to sure that initiatives are not duplicated and that all parts of the county are served.
Health Initiative offices are in the former Hospice headquarters building on NYS Hwy. 56 south of the village,
Fishbeck said the health initiative focuses the majority of its efforts on direct services and programs to improve the overall health of communities.
"Direct services are things like helping people get medical care and prescriptions when they can't afford them," she said. "That is something that we try to do when we can."
Fishbeck said improving health in the community is achieved in part through education, but in recent years the initiative has focused on providing access to physical activities that people enjoy. She said many communities throughout St. Lawrence County were granted money to purchase new rental skates for public rinks.
"We target things that have a broader affect and a lasting impact. Providing opportunities to be active is more effective than educational assemblies." she said.
Fishbeck said the Health Initiative serves St. Lawrence County residents, but is not funded though the county government.
She said the organization is funded largely by state grants and to a lesser degree federal grants and fundraisers. Some revenues are generated through its Work Well Investments program, which offers businesses a variety of options for creating healthier workplaces.
"The majority or our funding does come from grants," she said. "We pretty much work constantly to stay afloat."
Although health screenings and fitness education might not sound like economic drivers, Fishbeck said the impact of these programs can play a role for investors and developers looking for a community to house their operations. She said the health of a community is one of the factors considered by employers for a variety of reasons.
"I think they are looking at employee heath more and more as healthcare costs continue to rise," she said.
Fishbeck said healthier employees are more productive and thus more appealing to employers.
"Think about your ability to work healthy compared to when you are sick. You really are less productive and if your workforce is unhealthy, that is going to affect your bottom line."
While the Health Initiative does host some fundraisers, she said they prefer not to ask the public for contributions in the current economic climate.
Fishbeck said the Health Initiative is seeking community feedback in an ongoing survey that will help the non-profit target in a variety of ways.
Fishbeck said the survey is an important tool for identifying perceived health problems and healthcare related issues faced by residents of St. Lawrence County.
She said information from the survey will be used to develop a county-wide health improvement plan and will provide information that will help bring grant money into the county.
The survey can be found on the initiative's website at www.gethealthyslc.org. Scroll to the bottom left and to “St. Lawrence County Community Health Survey” or go directly to www.gethealthyslc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=224:c....
Health Initiative programs include:
• Promoting Access to Total Health -- Offers free screening events and helps patients in need of assistance pay for diagnostic health visits as well as prescription drugs. With St. Lawrence County's high level of unemployment, the program provides opportunities for people who might otherwise not see a doctor,
• Creating Healthy Places -- Aimed at making physical activities and nutritious food available to the public, with the goal of curbing the county's high rate of obesity and heart disease. Last year, the program provided funding for the purchase of new ice skates for many county recreation centers.
• Teens HELP – Designed to curb the growing rate of teen pregnancy, with the goal of helping teens reach their potential. The program focuses on educating teens of the various options available to reduce the risk of pregnancy.
• Healthy Schools NY -- As schools look for ways to promote healthy food choices and physical activity, the Health Initiative offers assistance by funding projects and offering information.
• Workplace Wellness -- Offers assistance to companies that want to improve the health of employees. The goal is to create a healthier workforce and reduce obesity related illnesses by providing opportunities for physical activity and more nutritious eating options.