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Southeast Kansas County Among Eight U.S. Communities Awarded Culture Of Health Prize

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
David Toland, CEO of Thrive Allen County, and others prepare for a Tuesday ceremony in Iola where community officials will receive a national award for their health-improvement efforts.


Residents of Allen County in Kansas are getting some national recognition for their health-improvement efforts.

The county is one of eight 2017 winners of the Culture of Health Prize awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest public health philanthropy.

Richard Besser, the foundation’s president and CEO, will be in the Allen County seat of Iola on Tuesday to help the community celebrate the award.

“For the past five years, RWJF Culture of Health Prize communities have inspired hope across the country,” Besser said in a release announcing the award.

Since its inception in 2013, the prize has gone to 35 communities across the country “that are thinking big” and engaging citizens to address barriers to improved health, Besser said.

Battling decades of decline

There were plenty of problems to tackle in Allen County.

Over the past century, people and jobs left. After a while, so did hope that things could get any better.

In 2010, something called the County Health Rankings came along to substantiate the decline and, in the eyes of some, add insult to injury. The rankings, which charted the health of counties in all 50 states, ranked Allen County near the bottom of Kansas’ 105 counties.

The rankings confirmed that decades of economic loss had taken a toll on people’s health. High rates of smoking, obesity and diabetes were cutting short the lives of too many of the county’s residents.

About the same time, Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit organization formed by the Kansas City, Mo.-based REACH Healthcare Foundation, was preparing to launch an effort to turn things around under the guidance of new CEO David Toland.

“I have a lot of hope. But I also know we have a long way to go.” — David Toland

Toland was an Allen County native who had recently returned after working in the Washington, D.C., Office of Planning, where he led an effort to overhaul the district’s comprehensive plan. When he arrived in Allen County, Toland said he was struck by the similarities between D.C. and his rural Kansas home.

“Both were places that had seen decades of disinvestment, population loss and poor health outcomes,” Toland said.

But after years of work, Toland said he’s recognizing indications of a turnaround in Allen County similar to what occurred in the nation’s capital.

“I’m seeing the same kind of early indicators,” he said. “So, I have a lot of hope. But I also know we have a long way to go.”

Signs of progress

There are visible signs of progress in communities across Allen County, but nowhere is that progress more evident than in Iola. In 2010, county voters approved an increase in the sales tax to finance a new critical access hospital, which is now open.

Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Redevelopment is evident in a new apartment complex on the site of the old 1950s-era hospital in Iola. A new grocery store going up next door also is the product of a public-private partnership.

A new apartment complex now stands on the site of the old 1950s-era hospital and a new grocery store is going up next door. Both are the result of public-private partnerships, Toland said.

Parts of town ravaged by flooding in 2007 were reclaimed and transformed into athletic fields and a community garden. Walking and biking trails crisscross the town and link it to the neighboring community of Humboldt, 11 miles away.

There is also progress on the health front. While Allen County’s No. 92 rank in the 2017 County Health Rankings still puts it in the bottom tier of Kansas counties, residents are working to address some of the underlying causes. In an effort to curb teen smoking, Iola voters approved an ordinance that prohibits tobacco sales to anyone under age 21.

Related story: For low-ranking counties, health improvements require long-term effort

The ordinance has been in place for only a year, and teens 18 and older can still drive a few miles down the road to legally purchase tobacco products, but Toland says “we think it is going to make a meaningful difference” over the next 10 to 20 years.

The rankings don’t yet reflect it, but Toland says the county’s 13,000 residents are also eating healthier and becoming more physically active.

“We have a shared vision to be the healthiest rural county in the state, and people have bought into that vision,” he said. “And it’s that vision that guides the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year work that we do.”

Editor’s note: Thrive Allen County is supported by several regional health foundations that also provide funding to the Kansas News Service.


Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.