Part 2: In Nevada, healthy change starts with 'bleeps' and 'bloops'

Sep 30, 2014

This is the second story in a series from the Health & Wealth desk on Healthy Nevada

The town of Nevada, in southwest Missouri, is changing in very subtle ways. To see it you really need to know where to look. For example, Walton Park, on Atlantic Street, used to be one of the town’s less popular parks for kids – just a small slide, a merry-go-round, and two swings. But today Walton Park is where all the cool six-year-olds go, thanks to one new piece of playground equipment.  

Nevada's community garden

“I feel like this was strategically placed right here because this is an area where we need improvement,” says Kelly Ast, a Nevada mother of two. Ast taps the dark blue orb that’s sitting on top of one of five aluminum rods protruding from the earth like a piece of sculpture, and the equipment shudders to life with bleeps and bloops.

“You’ve got to keep slapping it and stay up with it. And so they run back and forth,” Ast said. “I know this may look simple but this is [my kids’] favorite park right now. We never came to this park.”

"I'm never going to leave, my investment is in the dirt of this county"

Ast is also a community coordinator working with a team of people from Cerner, the $3 billion Kansas City-based health technology company that is trying to develop a model for improving the health of an entire population of people. And the company is trying it first in this small rural community, with a project it’s calling “Healthy Nevada.”

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When Cerner came to Nevada in 2011 with the radical idea of improving the health of an entire community, the organizers knew they were going to need some help on the inside.

  

“I got a phone call from an early coordinator,” Ast said. “I thought, ‘I really don’t need to do this.’ They just said, ‘Come in and talk.’”

As a cattle farmer’s wife, Ast was tapped to reinvigorate the town’s small farmers market and start a community garden. Vegetables from the garden and several farms up north now provide produce for cooking classes and Nevada’s community outreach program, which serves the towns WIC members and EBT SNAP card holders, which make up roughly 15 percent of the population.

Ast became inspired by what Nevada – a town with diabetes and obesity rates in the bottom third of the state – could one day be.

“I guess I was passionate because I’m never going to leave, my investment is in the dirt of this county,” Ast said. “I think our schools are strong, but if you look at job potential…it’s a little iffy.”

Job potential is actually a big part of the Healthy Nevada message. Early on Cerner polled Nevada residents on how they perceive their health. The team found religion and family were the two most important things to both low and middle-income groups.

"Could you be motivated enough to want to live a healthier lifestyle for your family?"

“It’s not so much about your look or what you’re eating. It’s about could you be motivated enough to want to live a healthier lifestyle for your family?” Ast said. “And when you’re talking about family you’re talking about culture, and when you talk about culture you’re talking about jobs and economic development.”

As Cerner works to develop its model for population health, one thing is certain – it won’t be based on sweeping reforms or expensive initiatives. No, so far Healthy Nevada has been defined by small victories, like a new piece of playground equipment, or getting six year olds to silly dance their way from the school bus to the classroom.

“They turn up the stereos and with the teachers and the principal, they silly dance to their classes,” Ast said. “That was never there before. The PTO had just bought a huge big screen TV for them to sit in the cafeteria and watch TV before school.”

And all this cost Cerner essentially nothing. To help get the community garden off the ground, Cerner put up the money for a tent and a tablecloth and covered Ast’s copying expenses.

“It’s not like we had these big huge grants for $10,000 or $20,000,” Ast said. “No, it was nothing like that.”

And this was Cerner’s plan all along – to get people like Ast thinking about the potential of their community and to make progress toward the goal of a reinvigorated Nevada, one piece of playground equipment at a time.