Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance is joining the New River Valley Planning District Commission in a $172,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The institute and the commission provided a cash match as part of the requirements of the two-year Roadmaps to Health Community Grant award.

The project, called Healthy by Design, aims to improve the long-term health of people in the New River Valley through data gathering as well as engaging young people in assessing and offering steps for addressing health needs in their communities.

“We are delighted to be part of this important work that brings together many local and regional partners in a true community-engagement project,” said Max Stephenson Jr., director of the institute. “The grant will support a two-year collaboration in which the institute will deploy staff and resources to focus on youth-engagement efforts. The goal is to integrate community health needs into the regional planning process.”

A “digital storytelling” component of the grant will involve youth from ages 14 to 17 deployed with video cameras to conduct interviews in their communities. The teens will gain instruction in the art of storytelling and also be briefed about their communities’ most pressing health problems. The multimedia materials they produce will then be shared using social media and other channels.

The second major facet of the grant, data gathering, will focus on the collection and refinement of regional health indicators and assessment data to inform the regional planning process. An integral part of the analysis will be on the economic impacts of health needs in the region, both at the private industry and governmental levels.

Other partners on the grant will furnish in-kind contributions. Partners include

  • Virginia Health Department-New River Valley District;
  • Partnership for Access to Healthcare;
  • Virginia Rural Health Association;
  • LewisGale Hospital at Pulaski; and
  • Virginia Tech Master of Public Health degree program.

The 12 RWJF Roadmaps to Health Community Grants – which support two-year state and local efforts among policymakers, business, education, health care, public health, and community organizations – will be managed by Community Catalyst, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to quality affordable health care. The grants are part of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program.

“These projects are really exciting for two reasons: First, they are truly collaborations among diverse community partners who bring expertise, relationships, and resources to improve people’s health; and second, that in addition to  health behaviors such as smoking and diet, they are focused on factors such as education, family relationships and income that heavily influence our health and quality of life,” said Dr. James S. Marks, senior vice president and director of the health group at RWJF.

As highlighted by the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index ®, the New River Valley faces many challenges related not only to direct assaults on health but also linked to social and emotional well-being. Not only does Virginia’s 9th Congressional District rank in the fourth or fifth quintile on every rating of overall well-being, but also in every instance that ranking has declined since 2009.

Both the Virginia Atlas for Community Health and Virginia Rural Health Data Portal assessments reflect negative social and health trends at the county level that underscore increasingly ingrained unhealthy lifestyles. Teen pregnancy rates, for example, are significantly higher in the region than the state average, and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute figures indicate premature death rates in the region are well above state and national norms as well.

The New River Valley Healthy by Design project team and other grantees will build on a model that highlights the critical role that factors such as education, jobs, and the environment play in influencing how healthy people are and how long they live.

Under the grant, the agencies and organizations will build consensus for and implement policy and systems changes that address the factors known to affect health – education, income and employment, community safety, and social connectedness.

Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance builds strategic relationships between the university and community by linking academic research and outreach efforts to address significant public policy issues. The institute was created to blend theory with practice by providing a variety of policy-related services. Participating directly with the NRV Healthy by Design project are Mary Beth Dunkenberger and Holly Lesko. For more information about the institute’s involvement with the project, call 540-231-6775 or email Lesko.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For nearly 40 years the foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves.

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