This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
In May 2013, after 32 years in journalism, I helped start Try This West Virginia, a coalition aimed at helping knock our beloved state off the lists of places with the least-healthy people.
The year before, I had written a yearlong series for the then-Charleston Gazette on West Virginia’s chronic disease rates. It hit me hard to learn what health experts have found: that 18 percent of kindergartners are obese and 1 in 4 children who are 11 years old has high blood pressure. Poverty is difficult enough; I worried what such health challenges could do to these kids’ chances.
I wanted to do something.
As I wrote, I talked with many local people who also wanted to do something but weren’t sure what to do. Increasingly, I stepped out of my journalist role to connect them with other West Virginians who had already created successful projects in their communities. West Virginians tend to be helpful and inventive. Often, all they need is good information and a role model.
When a representative of a local foundation asked if I’d like to help create a statewide healthy-communities network, I didn’t look back.
Four years later, Try This West Virginia is a coalition of groups that work together to support local action and help West Virginians learn from each other. Since 2014, we’ve awarded $286,500 to 154 local teams in more than 40 counties (out of 55). For every dollar Try This has granted, local people have raised between $8 and $10 in additional contributions, grants, and volunteer work.
It is truly inspiring to see what people are able to do with a little help and encouragement. Sparked by Try This grants, they have created community gardens, playgrounds, rail trails, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) initiatives at farmers markets, and youth-activity groups, among other projects. They’ve launched community conversations, too.
Try This spotlights what’s working, not what’s wrong. Our website has information about affordable, practical projects and features hundreds of pictures of successful West Virginia community projects. It provides the state with role models, such as the parents who organized an after-school soccer league after the schools said “no,” the rural teen club that organizes 5K’s and mountain biking activities as part of its antidrug campaign, the urban running club with 1,000-plus members, and the coal community where people use Facebook to organize daily runs and monthly 5K’s.
On the state level, we work to change policy. In 2014, for instance, Try This partners helped persuade the state school board to require an extra half-hour of daily physical exercise for each student.
Above all, Try This is helping build a network of local leaders, people who want a better future for their kids. The Try This annual statewide conference brings more than 500 people together to trade ideas. Regional gatherings help leaders from neighboring counties meet and brainstorm collaborations.
I’m glad to be a part of it. Getting West Virginia healthier is going to take years, but we all know it’s possible. We see it happening, community by community.