Sara Roberts is the director of the Kansas State Office of Rural Health (KS SORH), and is serving as a Flex Committee co-chair this year.

Brag about your SORH a little—tell us about a successful project you undertook and why you think it was successful.

I came to the KS SORH in 2010. My background prior to becoming the SORH Director was health systems research and community evaluation. My experience has taught me the importance of community engagement and collaboration. It’s what I see as important to what I do–it’s who I am and where I’m going. And it’s what I think we have to do from a state perspective.

Because we’re a small SORH–we currently have a staff of three–we don’t have the staff to provide direct technical support to each of our rural communities to complete community health assessments (CHAs). In 2012 we created a mini-grant initiative to encourage local community partners to collaborate together on a CHA.  Rural communities could apply only if they were willing to work with other community members.   We wanted communities to show that the local health department, the local critical access hospital and at least one other community member were willing to partner together. Each entity had to sign the grant application to demonstrate their commitment, and agree meet at least four times during the grant period.

Between 2012 and 2013 we had 32 communities engaged in this project.  As we began this project, our agency was also part of the development of Kansas Healthy Matters—a portal of health information that has county data, presented like a dashboard, where a county can look at a certain set of indicators for their county, and compare them to other counties in Kansas, as well as to Kansas and the United States as a whole.  Communities can freely use that data as part of their CHA.

Since the completion of this initiative, another statewide partner has replicated our model to provide continued support for communities to develop community health improvement plans.  Our project was also highlighted as an ASTHO Case Study.   As a spin-off from this project, our Office is involved in another community-engagement activity, hosting regional meetings to talk about impacting population health and what communities need to jumpstart collaboration.

These things may seem small, but they’re all part of the bigger picture of health care.  Kansas is very rural, so there’s always a lot of need. It has 105 counties, and there is a strong culture of localization and autonomy. We are trying to encourage communities to think regionally, to realize that a community may be broader than you think it is. It may be composed of four counties, but it’s still a community. It’s how you can define it. Through these meetings, we hoped that local health folks begin to connect with their neighbors as they discuss similar community health priorities and hear about what others in their regional community are doing.