Southeast Kansas is a special place. The region is full of quaint small towns, strong community institutions and good, hardworking people. But it also has the most extreme poverty in the state, combined with downward population trends and the worst health conditions in Kansas.
Regional health improvement efforts in Southeast Kansas began in the Spring of 2010 following the release of the Kansas Health Institute’s (KHI) 2009 Kansas County Health Rankings. These rankings showed all of the counties (Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson, and Woodson) ranked in the bottom quartile of Kansas counties, and seven of the nine counties ranked in the bottom 10 in the state.
Seeing these rankings as a call to action, Thrive Allen County, KHI and the Kansas Leadership Center co-hosted the first SEK Health Summit in Iola in March 2010 with a cross-section of 75 community leaders representing the nine counties of SEK. That summit educated many of these stakeholders for the first time about the severity of our region’s health challenges and led to a lively discussion about our region’s challenges in working cohesively, as a region, to tackle common challenges. Despite the challenges, the participants agreed that it was time to put aside past differences and work together for the benefit of the entire region.
As a result of these discussions Thrive Allen County established an affiliate organization, Thrive Southeast Kansas. Thrive SEK has taken up the challenge of leading the charge for a healthier Southeast Kansas in conjunction with the SEK Regional Health Coalition. Working in conjunction with partners from all nine counties and the Kansas Health Institute, Thrive SEK received a $40,000 grant from the National Network of Public Health Institutes, provided through KHI, to develop a series of projects using the CDC’s “Community Guide,” which provides a road map for community health and wellness projects.
This grant has funded six countywide projects modeled after the CDC’s Community Guide and resulted in the establishment of three new countywide health coalitions. It has also supported the first Southeast Kansas Meltdown which begins in September 2011. The Meltdown challenges residents to lower their blood pressure and resting pulse, and to lose weight through community activities ranging from healthy cooking classes to walking clubs.
Southeast Kansas’ problems didn’t begin overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. But by working together, as a region, we have a fighting chance to build a healthier Southeast Kansas.