Wellness programs branch out

April 1, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Activate West Michigan, a Kent County health initiative launched in 2004 by Carol Van Andel and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, is going strong — and a lot of people  may be feeling better because of it.

Activate West Michigan is a multi-faceted organization that strives to support better health throughout all sectors of the population, from the youngest members of low-income families to working people trying to squeeze a healthy lifestyle into a busy workday.

In late March, Van Andel shared some big news with the Business Journal: Word had just come that the organization landed a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“This is going to help us with four sites, or hubs,” she said, where the AWM’s Healthy U program will be offered near inner-city schools after classes are over each day. Healthy U teaches kids about healthy eating and the value of exercise. The Kellogg grant will permit the establishment of four Healthy Living Hubs where families have access to produce as well as nutrition education. Physical activities for the kids also will be available. A total of 38,000 people now receive nutrition education from the AWM/YMCA partnership, which aims to fight obesity among both parents and children.

About 6,000 kids are served by the Healthy U program at more than 50 sites. More than half come from single-parent homes.

Activate West Michigan also has a partnership with Spectrum Health, offering 400 Latina women and their families with culturally appropriate health, fitness and nutrition education. Still other programs include Project Fit in partnership with the MSU medical school, and involvement with Fifth Third Bank, which contributes to Healthy U and with the annual River Bank Run.

Businesses also benefit from the AWM/YMCA in its corporate outreach program and from the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which makes it possible for the lowest-paid and part-time employees to purchase health insurance for their children.

But Van Andel noted that it’s the preventive measures contained throughout the various Activate West Michigan programs that will help both companies and families deal with the cost of insurance. “The less you need to go to the doctor, the more you save,” she said.

The Great Recession that began three years after the establishment of AWM added to the level of need throughout the region, said Van Andel, which was evident in the demand for its programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped out with a grant of $770,000 to support its nutrition education programs — the largest single grant USDA had ever given to a community organization in Kent County. It was matched with $1 million worth of in-kind support from the community.

About 400 companies are members of the organization’s corporate outreach, according to a recent AWM publication. Chair of the corporate health and wellness committee of Activate West Michigan is Nancy Ayers, general manager of Flexco, a long-time Grand Rapids company that produces conveyor belt equipment.

Ayers cuts right to the chase when asked what benefits a company sees from joining Activate West Michigan.

“First of all, it’s free,” she said — and so is breakfast. One of the corporate sponsors is Kellogg, which sponsors the AWM corporate segment’s quarterly breakfast events — mini-seminars featuring experts who talk on issues related to employee health and wellness.

Management at some small companies may think that only larger corporations can afford to have an employee health/wellness program, but Ayers does not agree.

“Not at all,” she said. “Our company, Flexco, where I’m the general manager, currently has 125 employees, and we have an extremely robust wellness program,” she said, which includes a 5,000-square-foot exercise facility onsite.

This isn’t just about working out, however. The classes at Flexco range from nutrition to stress relief. Last month, a golf professional came in to talk about the game.

“It doesn’t always have to be what to eat and what not to eat,” said Ayers. “There are a lot of different ways to incorporate wellness into daily life that people don’t always think about.”

Once a month, the Flexco management team walks for 20 minutes during lunch hour, and employees who join them for the entire 20 minutes might earn a free sandwich.

“Our goal is something for everyone,” she said, even for an individual who has physical limitations such as bad knees.

Last year, AWM corporate members did some sessions revolving around dealing with stress and methods of preserving and enhancing good mental health, which was particularly timely in view of the ripple effects of the nation’s sick economy.

This year a major theme for corporate members is encouraging healthy families. There are things employees can learn at a work wellness program that they can take home to their spouses and children.

“It’s a lot easier to sell wellness at the CEO level now. It’s on more people’s radar screens because health insurance is such a huge expense. Everyone is always looking at what we can do to control those costs and get healthier employees,” said Ayers.

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