Improving public health by strengthening social infrastructure
6 mins read

Improving public health by strengthening social infrastructure

In the past, residents of Savonburg, Kansas, may have visited the local cemetery for several reasons. One, of course, was to pay homage to the dead. Another may have been to communicate with the living.

Because the cemetery was one of the few places in the city where residents could have a reliable cell phone signal.

Now, things are different. Cell phone coverage has improved in the southeastern Kansas city after residents identified the problem in a community assessment and began working on it with support from Thrive Allen County. Thrive is a local nonprofit whose mission is to “leverage the strengths of local residents to build healthier, more vibrant communities.”

Over the course of two years, Savonburg also constructed two storm shelters, the needs of which were also identified through community assessments conducted with input from Thrive.

Helping communities overcome barriers like telecommunications gaps or storm security doesn’t just solve those specific challenges. It also creates pathways for communities to begin addressing the systemic issues that are interfering with economic success, according to organizers of a webinar focused on community strategies for addressing long-term poverty.

Thrive Allen County was one of two rural revitalization groups to present information in the webinar. The presentations focused on how community work in rural areas that are chronically poor can improve local infrastructure, which in turn can improve public health in the long term. Another organization featured in the webinar was DreamBuild, a program in the Rio Grande Valley that helps families finance and build affordable modular homes.

The webinar was sponsored by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which publishes an annual report on the public health status of every county in the U.S. The comprehensive rankings are based on public data and include a broad view of public health, including information on the economy, the human environment and access to education, as well as more traditional health indicators such as disease prevalence and access to health care.

A recent webinar focused on civic infrastructure, which includes spaces where people can connect and share information. In rural regions that have historically struggled economically, such as Central Appalachia, the Black Belt South, tribal areas, and the Mexican border region, these community facilities can be lacking.

Strong civic infrastructure is key to building healthy communities, according to County Health Rankings. A lack of these community facilities can contribute to shorter life expectancy, less access to healthy food, and even lower voter turnout.

The report suggests that through a combination of policies, practices and resource allocation, there are ways to break down the structural barriers that keep many rural communities below the poverty line. Often, the answers lie within the communities themselves.

Thrive serves Allen County, which has a population of about 13,000 and is located 100 miles southwest of Kansas City, Kansas. The county seat and largest city is Iola, with a population of 5,300. About half of the county’s residents live in rural areas, as defined by the Census Bureau. The county’s median household income is about $20,000 below the national median income. More than 15 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with 11.5 percent nationally.

But organizers say Allen County can do a lot with little money.

This progress is thanks in part to Thrive Allen County, which provides resources and support to combat poverty and poor health among its citizens.

Thrive works through “thoughtful social engagement and empathetic action.”

Lisse Regehr, president and CEO of Thrive, describes Allen Country residents as “brave.”

“We change direction when necessary, which is often,” she said. “And we work hard to make progress.”

Regehr said that despite structural barriers contributing to persistent poverty in the region, Allen County residents, with help from Thrive, have been able to systematically change the way their communities function.

More than 60 miles of bike and walking paths have been built across the county, connecting towns and fostering new connections. A new addiction treatment clinic has been built, a state park has been created, and a family-owned grocery store has been revitalized.

At the heart of Thrive’s philosophy is a commitment to listening to the communities they are trying to help. At least once a year, Thrive visits every town in Allen County and holds a “community conversation” with local residents, asking questions like “what’s going well?” “what are you proud of?” and “what could be better?”

Savonburg’s storm shelters and cell phone access projects were a result of this listening process.

Regehr said that while organizations like Thrive can jump-start economic and social recovery, they ultimately put the power in the hands of community members because they know the community best.

In many cases, the work Thrive does is changing not only local conditions but also perceptions of those areas. People in these regions are no longer simply victims of a complex and broken system. Instead, they are changemakers, advocates for their communities, and taking action to get what they need.

DreamBuild, a modular construction program that was also featured in the June webinar, aims to help families in the Rio Grande Valley navigate the entire homebuying process.

DreamBuild walks families through a seven-step process that includes applying for the program, designing the future property, finalizing loans and moving in. Instead of turning families away if they don’t immediately qualify for loans, DreamBuild works with them until they are able to finance the property.

The modular homes DreamBuild creates are both affordable and flexible. Families can add rooms to the property later as their needs change, creating homes that are both practical and ones they can be proud of.

These homes are durable and energy efficient, and DreamBuild hopes their longevity will help historically disadvantaged communities start building wealth, piece by piece.

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