By: Beth Blevins

A farmers market, a community garden, chemo care kits—these projects and others were started with the help of Mini Grants from the Montana Office of Rural Health’s (RHI). The grants were awarded last fall and earlier this year to a total of seven community organizations across the state, using leftover funds from the first Montana Healthy Communities Conference, held in the fall of 2015.

Bigfork/Ferndale Community Square Foot Garden

“The conference has been a great way to integrate the resources and the network and the people within the RHI community with national and foundation resources,” according to Natalie Claiborne, MT-ORH Assistant Director. RHI worked and partnered with several foundations to fund the conference, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Montana Healthcare Foundation. “We’re not just looking at health in terms of hospital care, but also how you leverage resources like the Federal Reserve that do economic development in those communities, to create a healthy community in all aspects,” Claiborne said.

“RHI is unique in and of itself,” said Amy Royer, RHI Project Director. “It’s been ongoing and has a lot of state interest and partners, but now we’re taking it to the next step with the conference, and by utilizing those resources and other state partners.” The next conference is planned for October of this year.

The conference, and the Mini Grants that sprang up from it, are the latest initiatives from RHI, a local health and wellness resource center that has been run by MT-ORH since 2008. Through its web site, the program showcases local wellness initiatives via , provides evidence-based program ideas, and offers monthly health and wellness webinars. In addition, it publishes a weekly online newsletter.

“There are a lot of wonderful health and wellness initiatives out there, but to translate that from an urban setting into a rural or frontier setting with different perimeters and limited resources can be challenging,” Claiborne said. “To be successful in a rural setting, a different set of programs might have to be implemented, whether it’s a walking trail, a community garden, or a backpack food program for kids.”

RHI provides a network between communities so they can describe their barriers and share their successes, Royer said. “A lot of rural communities don’t know what’s going to fit for them,” she added. “Someone might say, ‘We don’t know how to get a diabetes education program started.’ But I can refer them to our site and say ‘this town and this town did it, with limited resources and with a similar population. Here is their contact info.’ With every profile, we make sure that it’s easy for another town to emulate the programs and knows who to contact.”

With the Mini Grants, RHI also aims to get organizations to network within their communities to make sure that their projects are sustainable. “For example,” Royer said, “the Richland County Backpack Food Program (which received one of the recent Mini Grants) was able to get local schools and grocery stores to pledge to keep the program going.” The program serves 75 children who are at risk for inadequate nutrition on weekends and holidays. Each backpack includes non-perishable food, which the children return each Friday to refill. The Richland County program is now one of several backpack food programs profiled by RHI on its website.

“It circles back,” Royer said. “Each success story serves as an example for others.”

RHI also is an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This month, as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, RHI is holding a contest that invites users to post photos on Instagram showing what they do to improve their mental health. Past RHI contests have included a Health Care Careers Interview Contest and a Rural Health Photo Contest for National Rural Health Day.

“By using networking and social media, we’re a facilitator between not just Montana resources, but state and national information applicable to these small communities,” Claiborne said.

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