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Champions Moment - Linda Rubin

Catching up with the Director of Vision 2020-How are we doing?

Linda Rubin lives in Keene and became a Champion on September 1st, 2010 where she made the pledge to live, share, model and inspire the Vision 2020 initiative. Linda is the Director of the Healthiest Community Initiative of Cheshire County, or Vision 2020 where she has been for the past three years working towards the ambitious goal of making Cheshire County the healthiest county in the nation by 2020.

Linda and Jodi at the 5KOver the past few years, Linda, with her experience with organizing public health goals in the Keene area, has made great strides in moving the initiative along, however, the key is to engage the community to work together to make this vision a reality. “If improving the health of our community was going to be more than just a big idea, we were going to need to get each and every sector to take greater responsibility for the health of individuals and, more importantly, populations of people” , Linda explains.

Vision 2020 is a community effort to transform itself and can only succeed if enough community members claim the project as their own. Vision 2020 can only get this community involvement if individuals and groups with many different backgrounds, priorities, and areas of knowledge work together.

So how has Vision 2020 achieved such early success? As Linda tells the story, detailed planning and goal-setting has had something to do with Vision 2020’s progress. The Initiative began by defining success in measurable terms so that they would know when Cheshire County had achieved its goal.  Their approach to community health has been both deep and holistic, focusing not on specific diseases, like diabetes or heart disease, but underlying health issues, such as physical inactivity, smoking, and poor nutrition. Some of the issues they identified, like high school graduation rates, might not sound like public health matters, but, as Linda explains, “We know that your socioeconomic status and your educational attainment level are two factors that have a huge impact on your health outcomes. If you lack a high school diploma, you are less likely to be healthy than college graduates living in the same town.”

But, as Linda says, “It’s great to have this list on a piece of paper, but who’s going to do it?”

That is where community organizing comes in, of course.  Independent coalitions and groups have pulled in and are doing most of the heavy lifting of community transformation, but Vision 2020 also has one program of its own to recognize and inspire the work of others. The Champions Program signs up individuals to work towards health and share what they do through their social networks.

“Champions don’t have to attend meetings or donate any money,” explains Linda. Participants simply “sign a pledge saying ‘I want to live in the healthiest community in the nation.’ Maybe they don’t know what their role might be yet, but there’s something about signing your name and saying I want that, I can see the vision and I want to be a part of  that,” that gets people focused. “But we also wanted organizations, businesses, and schools,” Organizational Champions that commit to recruiting individual champions from within their membership and doing one program, project or activity a year in support of healthy eating and active living. These projects do not have to be ambitious. “You have to meet people where they are…. We don’t know where they’re going to go, maybe they don’t go any farther than [starting a walking club], but maybe they do.”

The Champions Program has over 10 School Champions, 64 Organizational Champions, and more than 1,700 individual Champions, with the program only being two years old.  And the projects completed by these Champions are not always modest. There are new no-smoking policies and healthy menu labeling in restaurants and cafeterias. The Farmer’s Market in Keene now accepts EBT cards. And of course, there is that new North Bridge. “Everybody’s starting to do their part, getting on board.”

Linda is obviously excited about the success of Vision 2020, but she is also well aware of the challenges that lay in its path.

“There are a lot of people, still a lot of people. And we are in a crisis in terms of the chronic diseases people get  that are from unhealthy behaviors, like we now have children getting what used to be called ‘adult onset diabetes’ because they are not physically active enough and not eating enough of the right foods . But you can’t put all the blame on individuals…you’ve got to have environments like cafeterias and restaurants, convenience stores, schools,  neighborhoods,   and work places, that support the healthy choice being the easy choice, not just for kids but for everyone.” Linda is also concerned about the region’s economic security. As she explains, “we’re losing our young people. They can’t get jobs here, so they move to the cities…we’re an aging population that will continue to need young people to fuel our economy.” But this is exactly why something like Vision 2020 is so important at this time, important enough to be worth finding a way through those challenges.

As Linda puts it, “we’ve got to invest in our young people, make sure they are able to go as far as they are able with school, make sure there are good paying jobs for them if they stay in the area and if they do choose to live here that they have access to the healthiest foods, grown in gardens and local farms…and that will be a beautiful thing.”