AmeriCorps VISTA and Organizational Development: Promoting Healthy Lifestyles in Marshall

May 23, 2016
Kelsey Stern
Kelsey Stern

Kelsey Stern serves with Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) and the Marshall Area YMCA in Marshall, Minnesota. This is her second year in the College Health Corps. Kelsey’s service has helped to spearhead Healthy56258, which is a community-wide initiative to encourage healthy lifestyles for low-income community members. Read on to learn more about all Kelsey has done this year!

  1. Why did you decide to serve with AmeriCorps VISTA? Why did you decide to stay for a second term?

As I was getting closer to graduating, I knew I was not ready to go on to graduate school and I wanted to explore the different uses for my Exercise Science degree. The VISTA position was advertised a few weeks before graduation and it piqued my interest. After reading the position description, I knew that I needed to apply for it because its focus and objective — community health and wellness and assisting populations in need — were what I wanted experience in. I wanted to give back to the community that helped me to achieve a Bachelor’s degree and this was the opportune moment.

[As far as staying for a second year] I knew within the last month and a half of my first VISTA term that I was far from finished. Everything I was working on was in transition and only a person that had been there from the start could continue the work. Having a new person come in would set the programs back another 3 – 5 months not only for orientation, but for that person getting up to speed on the projects (and there are many). So I decided to stay another year and really do my best to fine-tune the programs, edit the program manuals, and put sustainability systems into place to assist the third-year VISTA. I wanted to not only do my part for the community and the associations I worked with, but [also] for the incoming VISTA.

2) Describe the Healthy 56258 initiative. How and when did it begin? What needs is it addressing?

Healthy56258 is a local, grassroots health initiative in Marshall, Minnesota focused on establishing and sustaining a culture of health and wellness in the community and surrounding area. The initiative is necessary for the community of Marshall because of the high number of barriers impacting all community members from making healthy lifestyle choices. Some barriers are lack of immediate access to grocery stores, abundance of convenience stores, lack of bike lanes, a disproportionate amount of sidewalks, and a city ordinance restricting backyard use for gardening to 25%. Focuses of Healthy56258 include looking at community systems such as schools and businesses, and the [living] environment (streets, buildings, parks) to improve and increase opportunities for health and wellness. There is an emphasis on community collaboration across all sectors: health care, worksite wellness, community institutions, schools, and more. Health is impacted by all of these factors and it takes collaboration to maximize impact for the betterment of the community.

The group has already achieved successes such as Lunch, Learn and Launch, a wellness event that over 60 employers attended to discuss and brainstorm wellness initiatives in the workplace resulting in 3,000 employees reached, many who are low-income; development of a comprehensive business plan; securing Southwest Minnesota State University as the anchor institution and the Marshall Area YMCA as fiscal agent; and securing additional support from Marshall Community Services and the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce.

3) Describe how you have helped to develop Healthy 56258. What has been possible because of your service?

Due to my service, the group has been able to make great strides within the past year. The organization is still run by a group of volunteers that are sometimes swamped at work and do not have any time to dedicate to Healthy56258 for weeks at a time … [so] having access to a full-time volunteer to help keep all members on track and on the same page has been essential. I assisted Healthy 56258 by first working more in the background, constructing documents that will assist the group members in making decisions. These documents included a Project Criterion Checklist, Center for Disease Control Best Practices Recommendations, and project evaluation. Within the last year, I attended group meetings and became more involved in organizational development. Healthy56258 hired North Sky Health Consulting of Minneapolis to assist in identifying an efficient model and decision making process. Once solidified, I worked alongside their co-chairs and president to draft the Healthy56258 business plan. I work alongside our Communications Lead on putting content in our website. I also continuously update and organize the Healthy56258 Master Binder, detailing our activities and organizational forms. I am currently searching for grants to help fund a full-time Executive Director.

One current project of Healthy56258 is assisting Western Community Action in getting SNAP/EBT accepted at the Marshall Farmers Market this market season (July – October) to increase healthy food items to low-income community members and their families. Western Community Action approached us due to our mission and vision. Due to our fiscal partnership with the Marshall Area YMCA, we agreed that this was a mutually beneficial partnership and this project fit within our project criteria. The Marshall Farmers Market has been approved by Food Nutrition Services (USDA) to receive a free card reader. We are in the process of applying for a Farmers Market bank account.

4) How will the next VISTA benefit from the time you have spent on Healthy56258?

The next VISTA will benefit from my trials and errors as well as my successes. They will have a lot of information to go over during the first few weeks of orientation, but I have done my best to make all the information as clear and concise as possible. The VISTA will benefit from carefully constructed manuals that detail the procedures of the programs, the resources, contacts, and tools necessary, and notes from the experience. The Healthy56258 Steering Committee has come to appreciate and respect the flexibility, the hard work, and dedication needed to be a VISTA and are completely supportive.

5) What are your plans after your AmeriCorps VISTA year?

This summer I will work part-time with Western Community Action [a Marshall nonprofit] where I will assist the food shelf and the farmers’ market. I am currently working with the Community Resources Coordinator to get SNAP benefits accepted at the farmers’ market this season.

[Following summer], I have been accepted into the Chiropractic Program at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington and will begin classes in the fall. I am excited to continue serving my community in whatever capacity I can, personally and professionally.

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