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For the health of it: Community Wellness Partners takes over where SHIP left off

Carrying out the mission of the Community Wellness Partners are Community Outreach Worker Fabio Lopez (from left), Public Health Nurse Casey Borgen, Registered Dietitian Darlene Studer, Health Educator Cecilia Bofah, Coordinator Christine Bullerman and Community Outreach Worker Owar Ojulu. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)1 / 2
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WORTHINGTON — The Nobles County Community Services’ Public Health office in Worthington has welcomed half a dozen new employees since last June, all of whom are part of a new Community Wellness Partners initiative dedicated to improving health for residents of Nobles, Cottonwood and Jackson counties.

Community Wellness Partners is a new name to identify the work formerly attributed to the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) and a new $1.2 million grant public health received through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that focuses on healthy eating, physical activity, diabetes prevention, collaborating with health systems to improve clinical quality measures, and connecting the community to available resources. The grant is over a period of four years, with potential to be extended.

Christine Bullerman joined the staff last September and is the coordinator for Community Wellness Partners.

“There were three other areas in the state that got this grant,” she said. The local award was presented to partnering agencies Des Moines Valley Health & Human Services and Nobles County Community Services.

The three other areas of the state have existing SHIP employees working on the grant initiative, but additional employees were needed to fulfill the grant locally. Among them are Public Health Nurse Casey Borgen, dietitian Darlene Studer (shared with Avera Medical Group Worthington) and Community Outreach Workers Fabio Lopez and Owar Ojulu. SHIP Health Educator Cecilia Bofah is also working with the group.

“We have 16 focus areas of health that we’re working on, community-wide,” Bullerman noted. “Over half of our strategies are identical to SHIP grant strategies, so it only makes sense that our two grant programs work side-by-side.”

Bofah has already been working on healthy food access and availability by working with area school districts and food pantries. She also is part of a planning group with University of Minnesota Extension to develop a community garden in Worthington, and is researching ways to establish a centralized terminal for customers at farmers markets to pay with EBT, credit and debit cards.

“We’re hoping to fund a terminal station in hopes of bringing more options to pay — and thus more customers — to the farmer’s market,” Bullerman said.

Another focus of Community Wellness Partners includes coordinating year-long Employers4Wellness programs for local businesses to support employee health. 

Through the program, staff will help incorporate evidence-based best practices to improve employee health and moral at businesses. Among the areas addressed will be vending options and snacks available to employees. 

“Our goal is to always think about health equity — to reach businesses that have health disparities such as lower wage jobs, a higher population of non-English-speaking employees and businesses with an older workforce,” said Bullerman. 

“If someone is doing a lot of shift work, that puts them at risk for chronic illness in the future,” added Borgen.

The group has already started to reach out to businesses, but if anyone is interested in joining the program, they should contact Bullerman at 295-5394.\

As for other initiatives, the CDC grant funding can be used to further the work the SHIP grant started.

“We will build on what SHIP has done with projects like the active living plans which Worthington is currently in the process of implementing” she added.

Among those initiatives are addressing food access gaps, making communities more walkable and bikeable, offering the “I Can Prevent Diabetes” programs and working with health systems to identify and assist people at risk for health issues.

Community Wellness Partners eventually wants to see community health workers embedded into health systems to connect with people of different cultures and beliefs, and help them decrease barriers to getting health care.

Both Ojulu and Lopez attend online classes through Northwest Technical College at Bemidji as they work to earn their certification as community health workers. There are just 600 certified community health workers in Minnesota at this time, said Ojulu. This profession is completely new to this area, and the health workers will work toward encouraging health systems to see the value in their position.

Once certified, Lopez will work with the Hispanic community, while Ojulu will work with the African community.

“We’re going to be helping people navigate the MNsure system, housing … things that people are not aware of,” Ojulu said. “Coming from a different culture is not always easy and somebody needs to be there for you. It’s important for us to be in the community, make referrals and connect them to services.”

“The community health worker is the point person,” added Lopez. “There’s a lot of barriers with language, culture and medical literacy.”

Borgen said the overall goal of what Community Wellness Partners hopes to achieve is reaching people where they need help addressing healthy living, whether it’s in the workplace, in the school or in the clinic.

“We’re trying to reach all facets of their life,” she said.

“We want to educate, inform and create awareness for the community, providers and stakeholders,” Bullerman added.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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