This is the first story in a series from the Health & Wealth desk on Healthy Nevada.
Pookie Decocq is the healthy living coordinator for the YMCA in Nevada, Missouri. She’s also the town’s official Pickleball Ambassador, which is a team sport played with two wooden paddles, a whiffleball and a low net, like ping pong or badminton.
Pookie’s dream is to hold a pickleball tournament here in this rural town in southwest Missouri. But the average Nevada resident isn’t exactly the picture of health. Like a lot of small rural towns in the state, Nevada has very high rates of obesity and heart disease. Its diabetes rates are some of the highest in the country at 11 percent.
“We have difficulty with access to healthy foods, healthcare, and transportation,” said Nevada City Manager J.D. Kehrman. “We’ve got very high levels of persistent poverty, generational poverty. That lowers people’s expectations.”
But Nevada is also going through a time of change. Big change. The kind of change meant to shake up the status quo.
In 2010 The Kansas City-based, health technology company Cerner was looking for a city to partner with on a new health project – a kind of experiment. And it chose Nevada as it’s laboratory. They called the project “Healthy Nevada.”
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Nevada is a town of about 8,300 people, 90 miles south of Kansas City. It’s got a Walmart, a few parks, a local 2-year college, and a small downtown district. When I asked some kids at the local community center if they’d ever heard of the Healthy Nevada project, they looked at me like I was crazy. And admittedly, I was surprised by this. I expected Cerner’s presence in Nevada to be a huge affair, one accompanied by a clever marketing campaign.
But Erik Gallimore, the Cerner executive in charge of the Healthy Nevada project, says Cerner’s strategy is to remain behind the scenes.
“We're really a catalyst behind this. It’s the community doing this work,” Gallimore said. “There is not a company or corporation in this world that’s going to be able to tell a community what they should or shouldn’t do.”
Cerner’s area of expertise is health information technology, but recently they’ve starting investing in R&D projects in the area of population health. In 2005 the company started experimenting with ways to improve the health of its employee population. The next step was to go bigger and work with an entire town.
“You have to go embed yourself at a grassroots level and work with everybody on a lot of different things,” Gallimore said. “I think that’s what moves the meter.”
That grassroots approach involves enlisting the help of important community leaders like Kehrman who could identify what exactly Nevada needed.
“You’ve got to make a model work here or it’s not going to work anywhere,” Kehrman said.
But early on in the project the team realized that its message of healthy living wasn’t resonating with Nevada residents. So Gallimore tapped into what people were most concerned about – jobs. They crafted a new message that emphasized a healthy workforce and economic opportunity. It got a huge response, and Cerner learned from the experience.
“People actually resist being told about becoming healthier,” Gallimore said. “You have to make it much simpler than that. Make it small things, make it personal,” he said.
The Healthy Nevada project is in its third year and is just now beginning to pick up speed. There’s a revitalized farmers market and community garden. And there are plans underway for a new walking trail to be built next to the middle school, and a clinic to help address Nevada’s diabetes problem. Gallimore says Cerner has committed to being in Nevada for five years - possibly longer. It takes time to do things that have never been done before and to make sure the results last long after the company is gone.
“To run in and think you'll do something in a year or two is a mistake,” he said.
At the end of the day Cerner gets a model it hopes to sell to other communities like Nevada. And for being the ginea pig, Nevada gets a revitalized, sustainable, healthy community. And maybe even a pickleball team.