Remember Evelyn Davis?

I started working in Des Moines in 1980 when I was fresh out of graduate school. Iowa State University Extension hired two urban 4-H professionals to fill one position. The Polk County Extension Director’s reaction was not warm. “There’s no such thing as a free puppy” was his frequent response to our requests.

Extension negotiated with Evelyn Davis for free rent in exchange for free programming with the families, kids and staff at Tiny Tots, and we moved into an old classroom on the second floor of the old Nash Irving Middle School, then the home of Evelyn Davis’ Tiny Tots Center. It was a cold day in February 1980, and Horticulture Specialist Mohammad Khan took us on a breakneck tour through the “hood” in his tiny Nissan. Things have improved a lot since then. Hofmaster and I learned our way around the city by being lost a good deal of the time.

Evelyn Davis’ work continues through the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. The Center houses Gateway to College and other programs for individuals and families that struggle to make ends meet, much less get ahead. Ms. Davis was a force of nature that impacted me personally as well as professionally.

I felt my baby’s first kick in the hallway at Tiny Tots waiting out a tornado warning. When I brought Kate to the center a month or so after she was born, Ms. Davis took my crying child from Charlene Owens’ arms and she quieted and settled against that warm caring heart immediately.

Ms. Davis helped our nutrition education programs connect with other organizations in the community, and let us hone our teaching skills on her staff and clients. Our joint efforts brought additional ISU staff to the community to work with parenting skills, nutrition education and advise on home improvement. We turned those three classrooms into a real inner city Extension Office that impacted the community for four years.

Now the site of the old Tiny Tots Center is Evelyn Davis Park where we held our first 4-H Portable Challenge Training. We brought Sam Tower in from Washington State University to spend a week with 12 professionals from Extension, Des Moines Schools and Employee and Family Resources. Those five days began the adventure movement in the Des Moines area. That fall we created a physical education class for kids who were at risk of dropping out of high school because they were failing PE. Soon we added afterschool and summer programs, and finally corporate training and work with adult students.

Ten years later we started the Adventure Learning Center with Living History Farms and Polk County Conservation, still the premier course in Iowa. And that’s where I learned to climb poles. But that’s another story!

Get Healthy

Driving to Florida for vacation, we listened to three books–Connected, Thrive, and Switch. I learned about all of them when I worked with Healthy Polk 2020 last summer. My task was to gather a group of experts around the priority, “Empower more people to take more responsibility for maintaining their health.”

My team thought the wording of the priority judgmental. They took out “responsibility” and raised the bar from “maintaining” to enhancing. Their proposed priority reads, “Empower more people to enhance their health.” By building on strengths, people can leave stymied life roles behind, and move forward through trust-based relationships.

Of the ten Healthy Polk 2020 goals identified in 2009, this is the broadest, and the only one that addresses lifestyle and behavior. That’s where Switch comes in. It’s by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, a book I’ve loved, shared, and used as reference for several years. Switch frames research about how change happens around a metaphor of elephant and rider.

All that Priority #8 of Healthy Polk 2020 seeks to change is, well, just the way we take care of our health, not just our physical health. My expert team defined health in broad terms, not just metabolic risk factors or healthy weight, but in terms of mental, spiritual, cultural and financial health. That’s where Thrive comes in.

Dan Buettner has conducted research all over the world, traveling to communities where people live the longest, happiest lives. One result is Thrive. Another is the Blue Zones Web site where it’s easy to spend a chunk of time, learning about yourself, and the things you can do to be healthier and happier. The Expert Team aligned their definition of health with the research of the Blue Zones project, addressing community, flow, meaningful work and other life style choices.

One of the cool things that happened with my Healthy Polk work is that about the same time we were wrapping up our work, Governor Branstad launched the Healthiest State initiative, and Wellmark announced funding for the Iowa BlueZones Project, through which ten Iowa communities will be able to develop tools and programs to live longer, happier lives.

Another gap my team identified was that neighborhoods and communities are not empowered to support and promote health. The action needed to close this gap needs further definition, but the vision is for churches, schools and neighborhood associations to develop networks that support healthy habits. Which is where the third book comes in. Connected explores the profound effect that our friends have on us. The research that caught my eye first is that people who hang out with obese people tend to gain weight. It makes sense, but surprised me nonetheless.

As my team discussed what “more people” meant, they envisioned a ripple effect, beginning with us, and spreading through our community organizations and friends. What do YOU think we need to do to start that ripple? Do you want to be a part of it? Let’s do it!