2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Partnerships to Tackle Pressing Health Problems

Nestled along the eastern shore of Mount Hope Bay in Massachusetts, Fall River was a mill town for about 150 years. As recently as half a century ago, families who called it home knew the mills would provide steady employment. That changed when the economy changed, and many of the biggest mills closed down. Today about a quarter of residents live in poverty, the unemployment rate is around 9 percent.

"The health of this community is very much reflective of the economy here,” said David Weed, Coordinator of the Healthy City Fall River Initiative from the Greater Fall River Partners for a Healthier Community organization. “When people work stressful jobs, have difficulty acquiring information about things that can keep them healthy, and lack good transportation, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

However, the town has come together to get and stay healthy. 

Many Health Services, One Location

Part of keeping people healthy is getting them healthy in the first place. In Fall River, that means reaching out to at-risk populations.

While the HealthFirst Family Care Center has been a part of the community for more than 40 years, a few years ago federal aid helped to expand both its structure and its mission. The new facility is five times larger than the one it replaced, but still in the heart of the town and still serving low-income residents.

The clinic is built from a renovated a former mill building along the shore of the Quequechan River, an area where a walking path will soon be constructed to encourage physical activity.

Lack of transportation is a major issue in Fall River. When people without access to a car simply can’t get to their health appointments, they are apt to let their health suffer rather than seek care that can keep them healthy. The revitalized facility concentrates a wide variety of resources in one place to help make sure that when people do come, they have access to multiple resources.

"We’re set up so that people can essentially get one stop shopping here and not have to travel to different parts of the city,” said Weed. “We have a pharmacy, our local hospital offers rehabilitative services here and we have a WIC—or Women, Infants and Children Program—that operates in the same building. So it means that families, particularly young mothers and their children, can come here and see several providers all in one visit.”

Fall River Tackles Health Problems Through Partnerships

Fall River is one of six winners of the inaugural RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

A former mill building was renovated into a state-of-the art multi-vendor health center for low-income people. In a community where lack of transportation is a major issue, the facility concentrates a wide variety of resources in one place so that families — particularly young mothers and their children — can see several providers all in one visit.

Engaging the Community’s Youth

Realizing that its public health efforts must focus on long-term changes, the town has worked hard to reach out to youth and even foster youth-driven health improvement.

A few years back teens in the community turned their attention to working to get cigarettes out of the town’s pharmacies.

"Initially, the city council turned down their request to have cigarettes banned from the pharmacies, but the youths stood up and they said, ‘You made promises to us. You told us that we were going to live in a healthy community—now you have to stand by what you said," she said.

Two of the selectmen changed their mind and the ordinance passed.

"What’s come from that, besides the wonderful fact the pharmacies don’t sell cigarettes anymore, is the empowerment of youth in our community. They got a taste of understanding what it’s like to bring about significant change,” said Garf-Lipp. “Youth now realize that they can stand up and they can make changes. That has spilled over to the things they’re working on now with prescription drug abuse, bullying and violence in the streets."

Fall River partners came together to challenge adults who live, work or attend school in Greater Fall River to get fit, healthy, and prevent Type 2 diabetes.

Fall River Fitness Challenge

Fall River partners came together to challenge adults who live, work or attend school in Greater Fall River to get fit, stay healthy, prevent Type 2 diabetes and pledge to collectively lose 2,000 pounds. Fitness participants gain access to programs and fitness centers throughout the city for little or no cost.

Teens Against Drug Abuse

Partners worked alongside youth who advocated for a successful citywide ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies. This initiative has empowered the youth in the community to tackle new issues such as prescription drug abuse, bullying and violence.

Creating Opportunities

Coalition members and the city have developed programs to reduce youth violence and help high school dropouts in Fall River develop job skills. Fall River even created an alternative high school for youth who have already dropped out or are at risk of doing so. Graduation rates are now the best they have been in decades.

Building Community Around Fitness Goals

As with many public health efforts, the Greater Fall River Fitness Challenge started small and grew into something much bigger. It was conceived as a program to engage a limited number of people in healthy behaviors that might improve their health in general and prevent diabetes.

For some people it’s about getting connected with the concept of exercise. For others it’s about losing weight. And for many it’s about working together and feeding off of each other’s motivation.

"I think that a lot of people are afraid to start this journey on their own, and the fitness challenge builds a really great camaraderie among people and gives them a chance to try new things, so they get to see what fits for them,” said Annemarie Sharkey, the Community Health and Wellbeing Manager for Greater Fall River Partners for a Healthier Community. “So it creates a nice community that kind of surrounds them and it helps them start their journey off.”

We were absolutely stunned to find that over a thousand people showed up that first month, all voluntarily. We realized that we were on to something here. So we’ve held the Fitness Challenge every January for the past five years.

David Weed, coordinator of the Healthy City Fall River Initiative

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.

Optimism for the Road Ahead

Despite the diverse community efforts, there’s still a long way to go toward improving the public health of Fall River. But Garf-Lipp is optimistic.

When you have a community where people are working actively to change the culture, to work collaboratively, to make this a place that’s healthy—that’s a really good sign,” she said. “When I see youth who have worked with us when they were in high school, go on to college and then choose to come back to Fall River to make a difference—that’s something that gives me lots and lots of hope.” 

Along the shore of the Quequechan River, a walking path will soon be extended to encourage physical activity.