The Ellenville Regional Rural Health Network is a consortium embedded in Ellenville Regional Hospital and was founded in 2017 in partnership with the Institute for Family Health and the Ulster County Department of Health and Mental Health. The network is using evidence-based community outreach strategies to reduce childhood obesity in Wawarsing, N.Y., where entrenched poverty and structural barriers to care and social supports result in a high burden of childhood obesity. The Family Wellness Program strives to improve the health of children by working with the whole family, with the goal of facilitating lifestyle changes and supporting changes in their physical, nutritional, and social needs. 

The Georgia Health Policy Center recently interviewed Victoria Reed, executive director of the Ellenville Regional Rural Health Network, about participation in the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s (FORHP’s) Network Development Program.   

What has been an early accomplishment or win of your participation in the network grant?  

We have been looking at our network structure and how we can make it stronger and long-lasting. We added some new members to our steering committee meeting, who are showing really good leadership. We also started engaging with a consultant to develop a three-year strategic plan, which is coming along really well. Both of these things have really helped us to shore up the structure of our network and make sure that we can have a strong future. 

What advice or wisdom would you give other networks based on your experience so far? 

One of the things that we have undertaken while trying to address obesity, especially childhood obesity, in our community is making sure that we layer the services so that we are providing a holistic approach. We don’t have individuals just working with the community health worker — we have the whole family working with the community health worker. We also have them working with nutritionists and setting goals, working with the pharmacist on medication reconciliation, and making sure we incorporate access to fresh produce through our free farmer’s market. As we have grown as a network, we really tried to stack the different services we can offer to families to address all of the social determinants that contribute to obesity and early childhood obesity. 

How do you see participation in the Network grantee program as impacting your broader health improvement efforts? 

Participation in the FORHP program really is essential to all of the work that we are doing. As a rural community and as a Critical Access Hospital, there are a lot of services we want to provide that we would never be able to bill for or support financially without the support of this program. The grant has allowed us to provide services and has also pushed us to form additional partnerships for our consortium. We have had a lot of luck with really stepping outside of what we would consider traditional partners — to break down silos in our community to work better together. One example is the free farmer’s market. While we work with the food bank, a traditional partner, we also work with the local prison, a nontraditional partner for childhood obesity efforts. But we get hundreds of pounds of produce to give away at no cost to the families that we work with. We attribute that to the design of the FORHP program — to be consortium-oriented — and it has pushed us to continue to look at who we can be partners with. 

Can you share an example that illustrates the value of engaging your network? 

It is important to partner with other organizations because so many other organizations are really the experts on things — they can just do certain things better than us. By partnering with them, we can focus on the things that we are really good at as an organization and then bring them in to do what they’re really good at. This is a better allocation of resources, and it ultimately means that our client base is better served by experts who can really deliver that service better. That is the benefit of a consortium approach. 

How will your organization or project emerge stronger from the pandemic? 

Like everyone else, COVID-19 affected us, especially the in-person programs that we offer, like our farmer’s market, which had tables from different organizations to connect those showing up with resources. Now we do it as a drive-through. Also, our in-person exercise classes are now done virtually. Transitioning to a virtual format has really expanded our capacity to offer more things, connect to people further away from resources, and to partner with organizations that are further away. Our local community can access their virtual classes, but when in-person, they would drive an hour to get there. 

The pandemic also gave us a lot of time to think about the structure of our network and how to come out of this more sustainable and stronger, and what our services might look like in the future. Even if things go back to in-person, we still want to incorporate virtual elements. It challenges us to think about what the future looks like for service delivery in rural communities.  

It also turned us on to the fact that internet, broadband access, and technology access really are becoming a new social determinant of health. It is almost impossible right now to access health care, education, and so many other resources, without access to the internet. We are finding that a lot more of our rural community than we thought either don’t have broadband access or just don’t have access to technology that connects to broadband. We found in our transition to a virtual format that for some of the people that came to our exercise classes, the most advanced piece of technology they owned was a DVD player. So, we burned our classes onto DVDs so that they could access them. This really led us to see this existing problem in our community and to decide what we can do about this going forward to make sure people can access all the resources they need, even if they don’t have broadband access.  

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