Real change is happening in the city of Whittier, Calif., thanks to a health and wellness initiative that’s both for and powered by the community.

Located 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Whittier has one of the highest rates of poverty, obesity and diabetes in Los Angeles County. The city has approximately 85,000 residents, of whom 66% are Latino and 27% are low income.

Community health needs assessments (CHNA) conducted by PIH Health and Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center (KPDMC) in 2007 showed obesity rates at 27% for adults and 25.3% for children. Growing concern within the community sparked the idea for Activate Whittier. The program last month received a 2015 AHA NOVA Award, which honors hospital-led partnerships that improve community health.

PIH Health and KPDMC founded the collaborative in 2008 with a core group of organizations from a variety of sectors, including public health, education, community-based and city government. Its mission: to improve the health and wellness of the community through neighborhood and community engagement, partnerships and policy and environmental change.

Rather than a hospital attempting to fix community health problems on its own, “it’s better to work through the consensus building and pick things that can be accomplished together,” says PIH Health President and CEO James West.

The founding partners engage all stakeholder organizations, agencies and residents to inform and sustain Activate Whittier efforts. A big turning point for the program was when stakeholders were invited to a series of community conversations to help better inform Activate Whittier’s Community Action Plan.

All Activate Whittier activities are carried out by volunteers, and the residents have truly proven to be the hearts and legs of the program. Nearly 70 residents have participated in the “Change Starts with Me” leadership training, to help champion healthy lifestyles and efforts in the community at the grassroots level.

“Our model is finding residents that have a passion and linking their personal passion and individual skill set into building a healthier community,” says Penny Lopez, Activate Whittier project manager. “As practitioners we have the theoretical background and ideas and data on what works. What our community residents have are connections and the actual power and influence to get things done.”

For instance, one resident took an interest in healthy fundraisers, creating a toolkit and tapping into her network as a Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) president to help local schools make the switch. Nine schools in the Whittier area have now done a mud run in place of an unhealthy food-based fundraiser – and ended up raising more money thanks to the change. In a mud run, participants run several miles, stopping every now and then to go through obstacles that incorporate mud, water, hurdles, hanging, climbing, crawling, jumping, and just plain getting dirty.

“The residents have taken the work to a level that we never could have anticipated,” says Vanessa Ivie, PIH Health’s director of community benefit and community health education and vice chair of the Activate Whittier board of directors. “It took on a life of its own with the ripple effect that happens when you arm people with information and training and then they take it to their networks, their friends and their neighborhoods.”

Activate Whittier has benefited from several grants and direct and in-kind contributions, including technical assistance and staff support from KPDMC and PIH Health. Hospital staff members are consulted on core operations as needed, on everything from data monitoring and evaluation to media relations and community benefit planning.

“We can sometimes take for granted all of the expertise hospitals have to share: education, training, development modules, IT. And really smart people that want to be involved,” says West. “You can use those resources in lieu of money. In fact it’s probably better a lot of times.”

Thanks to the strong collaboration between the founding organizations, partners and residents, Activate Whittier has a long list of accomplishments, including: enacting a smoke-free policy in all 22 of its parks; establishing a healthy food labeling program in two neighborhood stores; improving school wellness policies and increasing healthy food options; and implementing programs to increase children’s physical activity. Activate Whittier also helped local high school students create Project W, a student-run club that helps to advocate for healthy eating and active living.

Organizers are excited that they’re starting to see change in the community’s health as well. While a direct correlation doesn’t exist, they believe Activate Whittier has contributed to a decrease in obesity rates for the Whittier area: based on CHNA findings in 2007 and 2013, adult obesity decreased from 27% to 23.6%, while childhood obesity decreased from 25.3% to 23.4%.

“The most rewarding part of this partnership with PIH Health is that it shows that two health care organizations can band together to solve complex health problems of a community and help it thrive,” says KPDMC Executive Director Jim Branchick.

Activate Whittier