No one ever said meaningful change was easy, particularly when it pertains to the health behaviors of an entire community. But a dose of healthy change is exactly what a group of volunteers is building this year.
The Dexter Wellness Coalition aims to accomplish a series of tasks over the next year set forth by the Chelsea-Area Wellness Foundation (CWF) in order to generate a comprehensive health guide for the community. The goal of this process, referred to as the CWF’s "5 Healthy Towns Project," is to make Dexter one of the five healthiest communities in the Midwest, along with Chelsea, Manchester, Grass Lake and Stockbridge.
The program is centered on four elements: eating better, moving more, connecting with others in healthy ways and avoiding unhealthy substances.
The initiative marks a major shift for the CFW, which awards grants, mini-grants and scholarships to local communities that apply for funding.
“We’ve suspended our grant cycles, except for mini-grants,” said Amy Heydlauff, executive director of the CWF. “We want everyone to be focused on developing the comprehensive plan for their communities.
“The whole point of the plan is that everyone will be focused on one effort so it can have a greater impact. We want each town to develop a plan that speaks to the four elements in their own communities. The Wellness Coalition is the most important piece to move toward planning specifically for each community."
Heydlauff said the CWF’s new focus and 5H program is not to be taken lightly, because the planning process alone is lengthy.
“I can’t explain what a big deal this is,” she said. “This is not a one-year effort. This is going to be something we’ll be working on year after year, which is different than most approaches.
"This really is going to bring important changes to anyone who wants to be healthier. Plus, it’s innovative and is going to draw attention from researchers and other communities. It has the potential to be great fun for the communities and have an impact.”
The Dexter Wellness Coalition includes volunteers representing Dexter Community Schools, the Village Council, chamber of commerce, library, farmers' market and various community groups.
Co-leading the coalition is Mary Marshall, superintendent of Dexter Community Schools, and John Hansen, a former Dexter superintendent and state representative.
Hansen is no stranger to the difficulties of working toward change, but he hopes the community will embrace and work with the coalition.
“There is a lot of superficial interest (in what we’re doing), but changing behavior isn’t a simple thing,” Hansen said. “There’s no real precedent for what we’re doing in the area.”
The coalition’s first plan of attack is to complete a series of questions and profiles about the Dexter community. These assessments report on current resources, identified needs and previous efforts attempted by Dexter groups. The coalition is preparing to complete the civic assessment portion of that report, which identifies and catalogues different strengths within the Dexter community.
“We are taking a structural look at the community,” Hansen said. “Who are the movers and shakers in the community? Who should be on the coalition? What things have happened and how have they happened? If you’re going to do something and be involved in some effort, you don’t start from scratch as if there is no history in the community.
“We are in the process of beginning to take step one,” Hansen said. “Everything we’ve done before this has been to get people interested in being a part of (the Dexter Wellness Coalition).”
Despite having representation from various cross sections of Dexter, Hansen knows the coalition needs more volunteers on behalf of the unrepresented constituents, such as senior citizens, the community’s youth, the faith community, township governments and restaurant and business owners.
Larry Cobler, president of the Dexter Community Schools Board of Education, serves on the CWF’s Board of Directors and reinforced the importance of gathering community support.
“One of the things each of the communities has gone through is this escalation of coalition membership as more people become aware of it,” he said. “That’s another phase that the Dexter group is going through still. The coalition is always open to other people joining.
“I think some of the businesses like restaurants and grocery stores are important to work with,” Cobler said. “Perhaps with restaurants, the owners can consider looking through their menus and considering healthy options. At grocery stores, one of the questions we can ask would be what they’re offering in terms of produce.”
Both Hansen and Cobler mentioned the village's efforts to increase bike and walking trails as evidence of grassroots health efforts.
“Whenever they do infrastructure work on roads, they will think about sidewalks to allow people to walk more and facilitate biking. Dexter is one of the few places in the state to pass a 'complete streets' ordinance,” Cobler said.
In the future, Cobler said he hopes other organizations follow the Village Council's lead.
“I’m not too worried at this point in time, because we are so new,” Hansen said. “We’re going to move forward at this point working on this civic assessment, but it’s not going to be quick. We have to take a look at what we have.”
For more information or to volunteer, email Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org.