Susan Mann

Susan Mann, president of the 1889 Foundation in Johnstown, discusses a new direction for the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health in Johnstown on May 7, 2019.

The 1889 Foundation has received $100,000 to work with a team of nonprofits through a nationwide "challenge" aimed and making Greater Johnstown and 19 other communities healthier places.

Backed by a $100,000 grant from the wellness-focused Aetna Foundation, the 1889 Foundation made Cambria County one of 20 regions included in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge – an initiative designed to foster cooperative community efforts to change unhealthy patterns, organizers said.

“Access to health care and healthy food, as well as other social determinants of health, can significantly impact rates of chronic disease and other health outcomes, with average life spans varying by up to 20-30 years in communities that are just a few miles apart,” said Eileen Howard Boone, President of the Aetna Foundation.

Given the challenges COVID-19 poses, wellness issues are "more important than ever," Boone said.

Susan Mann, president of the 1889 Foundation, said communities with poor marks in population health areas that have already formed coalitions to address their issues – in Cambria County's case, maternal health during pregnancy and diabetes – were considered for the program.

Cambria was one of 10 counties in the nation selected for the challenge, Mann said. The rest were cities, including Wheeling and Pittsburgh.

Approximately 120 communities applied for the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge before a "rigorous" review of each proposal narrowed the field down to 20, organizers indicated.

A Cambria County partnership – part of which included a Vision Together 2025 capture team – has been working to address local health issues for the past three years.

In response to population health and wellness indicators that rank Cambria County residents among the unhealthiest in the state, the 1889 Foundation and the Jefferson Center for Population Health have been working with community partners to plan, fund and introduce efforts aimed at reversing that trend.

Alongside the 1889 Foundation and Jefferson Center, the United Way of the Laurel Highlands, the Community Action Partnership, Beginnings Inc., Alleghenies United Cerebral Palsy and the Communities in Schools program at Greater Johnstown School District have been partnering in the soon-to-be launched "Community Care Hub" to target two key issues locally – diabetes and low birth weight, Mann added.

Six community health workers have already been hired and trained to reach out to people identified as being high-risk in those areas, she said.

The $100,000 Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge "will compliment that effort," by enabling the group to focus on food supply, Mann said.

Mann said the group wants to identify local "food deserts" to ensure healthy, nutritional food and resources to obtain them are in reach.

"There are already programs here, whether its the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and food pantries, but we want to find a way to bring these coordinated efforts together," she said.

Mann said that all 20 groups working to solve their health issues will also be able to share "best practices" they develop and lessons learned is perhaps the biggest benefit of the program.

"We're all dealing with a lot of the same issues," she said.

Technical assistance provided by the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties and a supportive peer-learning network led by Healthy Places by Design will be available over the course of the next two years, Aetna wrote in a release to media.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving health equity,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, American Public Health Association executive director. “Successful, lasting change comes from cross-sector partnerships and engaging affected individuals and communities, which is why this challenge is so powerful. Together, communities in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge will be able to achieve enduring transformations to public health.”

Aetna's program will support the community groups for two years, Mann said.

"Hopefully, by that point we'll have a real handle on connecting some of these at-risk groups to the help they need, so we can move into helping other groups, including school-age children," Mann said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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