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Healthy Communities Exchange Ideas

Courtesy photo. Amy Heydlauff in Algoma, WI with the Wolf Tech crew (sitting on and around some of the products they produce), including Superintendent Nick Cochart and Community Health Director Teal VanLanen; students Jacob, Ethan, Michael,  Aubrey, Savanah, Ryan, Adrianna and Laura; and Wolf Tech instructors, Zug and Matt.

By Amy Heydlauff

You know that statement “Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it?”

Once again, I am going to reference Algoma, WI. Even though I mention this community, often, they aren’t perfect or they wouldn’t have to fail forward. But they are working hard to fix the challenges in their community. Their town isn’t rich with organizations who can lead their efforts, so they lean on the school district.

Alison Pollard and I just returned from Algoma. Alison is a past 5 Healthy Towns Foundation Board member and an advocate for health.

Algoma is a small town (3,400) with a poverty level approaching 60 percent according to those with whom we met. Yet they are making huge investment in their youth. It is critical to note, their investments are in relationships as much as financial. They hold dear their expectations for both youth and adults.

This interesting community isn’t doing what they’ve always done. They are changing their ‘systems’, the most fundamental way they behave. These systems worked before but are now getting in the way. In Algoma they are not waiting for someone else to solve their problems. Or give them money. Or change a policy. Or make things easy.

In the high school, which also serves as middle school, students with a challenging past (like 14 foster homes or kids who’ve been responsible for raising siblings in the face of absent or incapacitated parents) are tapped, trained and paid to lead Algoma’s after school Wolf Den.

Wolf Den is programming for elementary school kids with the same sorts of problems. These teens produce remarkable results – especially considering they are students who aren’t used to being expected to deliver. Somehow, they find a way to do just that, building their sense of self as a valued member of their community.

In Algoma, school leadership went to local industry and said “How can we help you?” Manufacturing leaders stepped up, to the students’ and their own advantage, and placed multi-hundred-thousand-dollar machines in the High School’s tech space, along with an employee, to train selected students on the real thing. Producing real products, the company produces for real customers.

Algoma has people whose retail shops sell the amazing array of goods being produced by students in Wolf Tech (you can also order online: Goods designed, produced, priced, marketed and sold by students who make a lot of mistakes and learn plenty before they push their beautiful products out the door.

The Algoma wellness center has a nurse sitting right inside the door, taking blood pressures and helping people make healthy life decisions.

Connecting people and programs are important in Algoma.

Take for instance the teacher who teaches science with aquaponic and other gardens. Alison and I saw the aquaponic lettuce in her ‘lab’. Later we saw it when we stepped into the Jr. High cooking class. The lettuce was being packed in salads. Later that day we saw those salads being served as part of the dinner to kids in the after school, Wolf Den program.

They don’t have a lot of committees or councils or commissions or congresses. The leadership explained they used to, but gradually those gave-way to persistent, informal communication between those fully engaged in caring for others and the community.  Those who were more inclined to-do, than to sit around talking about doing. Those with open hearts and hands, willing to roll up their sleeves.

They don’t play by the rules, most days. They find the people with passion and knowledge (technology, for instance) and get that person certified to teach. The local church works closely with the school to connect senior citizens and children from homes in need of food assistance.

The seniors (the one we met was a spritely 90) put weekly, encouraging notes to the kids in those food boxes. Food isn’t sent home with kids, because the church believes the children should not be responsible for feeding the family. They hold parents accountable for picking the food up (with allowances for those without transportation), building the parents’ confidence in their ability to care for their family, even in just this small way.

How can we further serve students, seniors, families, and organizations across our region? The possibilities boggle the mind. But we must be prepared to

Bend or break embedded practices and rules. And take inevitable heat when we do.

Fail as many times as necessary to get it right

Connect in every direction

Two of the people with whom we spent time in Algoma are coming to the 5 Healthy Towns, next week.

We are excited to show them what we do so well – engagement of people and organizations (among other things). They will find different kinds of inspiration than we found in Wisconsin.

But because of many of you in our communities, we anticipate they will find plenty of it.


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