This story is adapted with permission from AHEC/Community Partners' Healthy Communities Newsletter, Mar.-Apr. 2002 issue.
In the beginning: coming together for a purpose
Some coalitions are born of a crisis. Others, like EQUAL (the East Quabbin Alliance), in Barre, Massachusetts, are created by a desire to make long-term improvements in a community.
Coalitions can be complex community organisms, and it is often hard to pinpoint an exact moment of creation. While there wasn't a single burning issue that got EQUAL going, many people in the area had shared concerns, and were eager to work together for change.
EQUAL's roots can be traced to the local Barre Family Health Center that it eventually helped save (more on this below). In 1999, to help raise the understanding of community health approaches in Barre, Dr. Joseph Stenger, a staff physician at the center, and Suzanne Cashman, of the Center for Family and Community Health at the UMass Medical School, organized a series of discussions about the blending of clinical medicine, public health, and community activism in a Healthy Communities model.
These discussions stimulated interest in developing a community health coalition, and a core group of residents came together to form EQUAL. They described the new group as "a community-wide coalition committed to nurturing the quality of life for all those living in the East Quabbin Region."
"I was resistant to getting involved at first," says Sue Coles, a member of Equal's steering committee, "because I didn't want to be part of a bureaucratic boondoggle." But she was pleasantly surprised when she first started attending meetings to find that the group was intent on making changes in the community.
In 2001, Healthy Communities Massachusetts granted scholarships to the eight members of Equal's steering committee, enabling them to attend the Healthy Communities Massachusetts Institute. With lessons on community visioning techniques, asset mapping, issue framing, planning, evaluating progress, and more, the group came away feeling prepared to take on the challenges ahead.
"The training session really instilled a lot of confidence for me," says steering committee member Sam Kertiles. "I realized I just had to 'do it,' rather than think about whether or not I could do it. I learned that it really doesn't matter who you are, everyone brings something to the group that can be helpful."
Setting-and sticking to-an agenda
Rather than incorporating and becoming an independent organization that runs programs, the volunteers in EQUAL decided to help existing organizations and agencies in Barre and surrounding towns formulate and carry out their work. "There are already so many assets out there," says Gail Murphy, another steering committee member. "We didn't need another group."
The coalition made an impact on Barre within its first year. One of its projects was to publish a community resource guide, a directory of 232 local agencies and organizations that has proven valuable for organizations with clients who need referrals.
"Equal's primary achievement has been to get a lot of the organizations in town to collaborate, cooperate, and share resources," says Stenger. "The organization has become a venue where people can come talk about what their groups are doing."
EQUAL does not sit and wait for existing organizations to come to them, though. The group's members began attending meetings of agencies like the local Youth Commission, which had been stagnating for some time. Thanks to Equal's participation, the Youth Commission is now more active than ever, with a group providing support for kids with emotional problems, regular meetings for teens to discuss their concerns, and plans to develop a youth center.
In the youth group, Sam Kertiles worked with local teens on "empathy, understanding and support." After the first eight week session, participants in the group overwhelmingly endorsed it, with one teen commenting that the group had "helped me to grow a little more mature and has showed me better ways to handle my feelings."
EQUAL also saw that work on Barre's open space plan was languishing, so several members restarted the planning process. Martha Varnot, who is active on Equal's steering committee, was surprised to find "no growth plan in a community that's growing," and few people concerned enough to create such a plan. EQUAL is helping create that interest, she says, and is working with residents to develop leadership skills and confidence.
Residents were also worried about the local landfill, located right next to the Ware River, the community's primary watershed. In collaboration with the Board of Health, information is being gathered on water safety, recycling, and toxins. "We're using the open space committees work to address the issues posed by the landfill," explains Varnot.
Like any community, the number of issues to be tackled in the Barre region is seemingly endless, but EQUAL has maintained its focus on these two-the environment and youth issues. That focus contributes to their ability to make headway in their work, and helps ensure that new participants in EQUAL know just what they're getting into.
Responding to crisis
Though its focus is on long-term issues, EQUAL has also been able to put out at least one fire. The crisis was a threat to the Family Health Center in Barre-the same health center whose staff introduced the healthy community ideas that led to the coalition's creation.
The clinical staff is like family for many Barre residents. So when several staff positions were cut from the health center in the fall of 2001 due to budget cuts by the facility's parent company, the town felt a loss. EQUAL organized a town forum, inviting Dr. Marianne E. Felice, Interim CEO of UMass Memorial, to address the community's concerns. More than 80 residents attended, an amazing turnout for a town whose population is well under a thousand. (And though the cuts were system-wide, Barre was the only town to hold a forum.)
The efforts to save the center were successful. "I can see the relationship that the town has with the center," Felice said at the forum. While she defended the cuts in staff as necessary to keep the corporation in business, she promised the community that she "wouldn't even consider ever closing the clinic."
"I remember when then-freshman Senator Ted Kennedy cut the ribbon opening that center in 1962," says State Senator Stephen Brewer. "Those clinics are still the most cost effective health delivery system. Thanks to EQUAL, the forum helped put a face on the need and value of that clinic."
Seeking new members, listening to new voices
Equal's broad purpose enables its members to work to their own strengths and interests. Sue Coles has committed to bringing other voices to EQUAL that might not otherwise be heard--those of seniors, people with disabilities, and residents who can't come to meetings. Coles goes to these people instead and interviews them as part of what she calls her "Conversations on Community" project.
In the course of these interviews, Coles asks her subjects what they think a healthy community is, what they like about their community, and what they would miss if it were lost. These questions inevitably lead to discussions about what aspects of the community need attention, she says, and those thoughts are taken into account as EQUAL plots its evolving course. Coles writes up her interviews for publication in the Barre Gazette.
Her interviews have lent a wide range of perspectives to Equal's work. Edith Swindell, who has lived in Barre for 94 years, said "There should be places for children to play," and stressed the importance of re-connecting residents to the town's natural assets and beauty, saying "I don't think a lot of people have any idea. They go whizzing by and don't see a thing."
"A healthy community means one where people are engaged," says Coles, when asked to respond to some of the questions she puts to her subjects. "It's where people care about connecting with other people to share responsibility and pride in their community." In an ideal world that kind of atmosphere is created naturally, she says, but in reality it needs to be fostered constantly, lest inertia and apathy take over.
Maintaining the momentum
Kertiles says she was "smitten" with EQUAL after attending her first meeting; since then she has been writing grants and creating a newsletter for the organization. She said the core group of EQUAL participants "know that to keep people involved you just need to include them, listen to them, and not judge them. They made me feel like there was a place for me."
That kind of attitude needs to be maintained for the coalition to succeed, agree organizers. "For this to work we need to keep getting new people to participate so that nobody gets stuck taking on jobs they don't want to do," says Coles. "It also has to keep evolving and re-evaluating its mission. We have to keep ourselves open so we can engage more people and keep them interested."
EQUAL relies entirely on volunteer efforts. Members of the steering committee share the responsibilities of chairing meetings, and the Barre Family Health Center provides some services such as photocopying.
After operating with almost no budget its first year, though, EQUAL received a $1,000 Incentive Grant from Healthy Communities Massachusetts, which was matched with a $1,000 gift from the Barre-based Stetson School. The funds will help the group carry on, engage new members, and perhaps pursue new issues, such as the needs of local seniors.
When asked what headline she would want to see in the local newspaper about EQUAL in five years, Kertiles says, "Volunteer-Staffed Teen Center Opens in Barre." Coles sets her sights a bit differently, and offers "Equal's Model Community Implemented by U.N."