I'm taking a big break and leaving the Try This staff, partly because I'm 75, partly to give myself enough time for art, music and just goofing around. It's time. Try This is in fine shape now, despite COVID, with a wonderful director, Brittney Barlett, and a great fiscal sponsor in the Lewis County Family Resource Network, headed by Deanna Palmer.
I asked Brittney not to make any fuss at this time. She encouraged me to write a piece for the newsletter. So here it is. I’ll end with my dream for the future, but first, I’ll take you back to the start.
In 2013, people from about 15 different statewide groups got together and literally dreamed up Try This West Virginia. We ratified it at a rowdy, joyful dinner. I was along for the ride.
I had just left a reporter job at The Charleston Gazette, after writing a 71-part series called The Shape We’re In, about West Virginians who were creating local healthy-community programs to help knock the state off the worst health lists. In 2012, it wasn’t easy to find those people, but, to my editors’ great surprise, we found a lot of them. The series lasted a year and a half. Readers said the stories about West Virginians creating running clubs, farmers markets, healthy cooking classes, etc. gave them ideas and inspired them to want to do something themselves.
But the people I interviewed often didn’t know each other. That surprised me. They often didn’t even know the others existed. Many told me how isolated and alone they felt. They were busy and often had no way to find out what the people in the next county were doing, much less what people in other parts of the state were doing. So they had no regular way to be inspired, get fresh ideas, or get support. That's a prescription for burnout.
Try This was created to give people that network, that way to connect. The people who started Try This believed that a statewide grassroots movement is necessary if the state is ever to get off the worst health lists. We all suspected that, if those people could meet – or even know the others existed - they would inspire each other and accelerate each other’s projects.
It worked! The Try This network came together very fast, thanks to the fact that the Try This steering committee included representatives of some very active statewide organizations. I signed on as the first director. We expected maybe 150 people at the first conference. More than 400 showed up, nobody wearing a suit, mostly grassroots people eager for ideas, amazed to find that they are part of a movement and not alone at all.
People were energized by the minigrants: up to $3,000 seed money to spend on a healthy-community project. West Virginia funders rose to the occasion. By 2017, 147 miningrants had been awarded in 44 counties. Try This was funding farmers market projects, running groups, community gardens, hiking trails, healthy childcare centers, playgrounds and other projects that help people get active and eat healthy. Best of all, the process was building local leaders. Today, 340 projects in 52 of 55 counties have been funded.
The connection between ordinary people fuels the network's growth. Part of my dream is: it keeps happening that way. The mix of beginners and old hands, professionals and ordinary people, is a great combination. Try This conference evaluations are full of statements like “My head is bursting with ideas I got from people at the conference” and “I had no idea there were so many people doing great stuff.” That mix is magical. People loved it that people "who look like me" were up on the stage and leading workshops, along with the professionals.
Each year, when participants are asked to name their favorite part of the Try This conference, it always has to do with the people they met. … “hearing about so many wonderful West Virginia projects made me feel proud” … “all those stories made me feel like we could do it too…
For the past two years, COVID has kept Try This from getting people together in person. Try This and other groups connected people online instead. See the list of Try This sessions (and watch some!) at https://www.trythiswv.org/try-this-online-connections. Hopefully, there can be a real face-to-face conference next summer. Meanwhile, the staff is getting ready to start up online again.
So here's another part of my dream for the future: the people who are working to prevent chronic disease, depression and substance abuse start to collaborate more at the state level. A very powerful, broad prevention /wellness movement could be created in West Virginia if a way were found to build collaboration between all the prevention movements. It could provide the muscle behind, for instance, a legislative push for a more robust and healthy afterschool program for all West Virginia children that would keep our kids active in a healthy way and undercut the "There's nothing to do, so let's get high" syndrome.
When Try This started, the stated goal was to lower the risk of chronic disease in communities. Research says regular physical activity and healthy diet both lower the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases. So we required that each minigrant expand local access to either physical activity or healthy food.
Research also tells us that physical activity and healthy food lower the risk of depression, which is a major pathway to substance abuse. People who become more physically active or adopt a healthier diet are statistically likely to lower their risk of all of those things. So Try This gives minigrants to anybody who is expanding physical activity or the supply of healthy food for any of those reasons. But the chronic disease prevention movement and the substance abuse prevention movement don't collaborate like they could at the state level, to expand physical activity and healthy food opportunities statewide. That could change.
I hope it happens. Meanwhile, I hope Try This can keep doing what works: finding ways, after COVID, to keep getting ordinary people together in ways that give them space to talk, trade ideas and inspire each other, with access to professionals who want to help them succeed.
In 2017, WVU Prevention Research Center formally evaluated the impact of the first three years of Try This on participants. Their evaluation showed the extent to which the network had built hope. See key findings here. Before 2013, it would have been hard to find many people who would have said that WV might be able to get off the worst health lists. After three years with Try This, 82% agreed that Try This had increased their belief that WV can get off the worst health lists. And one out of two said they had helped somebody from another community with their project, because of Try This. That's hope.
Try This has a wonderful director in Brittney Barlett. She will make sure Try This keeps involving grassroots people who may never have considered themselves local leaders before. COVID hit the state in 2020 just about the time Brittney was getting her wheels rolling, so she has not had a chance to meet many of you in person. To keep Try This growing, she deserves – and needs – your support. She has many creative ideas and wants to hear yours. To succeed, she needs a great team. See her message here.
Hopefully, the COVID threat will go away, hundreds of us will meet in person next summer, many will get to meet Brittney and the staff … and Try This and its partners will keep creating ways to collaborate and bring more West Virginians into the movement.
The first rule of the Try This conference has always been “Talk with Strangers.” As long as Try This - and partners - keep bringing new people in and talking with strangers and giving them a chance to trade ideas and inspire each other, the network will keep growing. So will the chance that, someday, West Virginia can be off the top of the worst health lists.
There are 1.8 million West Virginians and most still do not know that there’s a healthy-community network they can join that will make them feel proud. But we're getting there. Imagine what would happen at least half of them entered the conversation!
At the first Try This conference - and every conference since then - everyone has shouted “It’s up to us!” It became the Try This motto. We would have shouted it together this year if COVID had let us. So I'll say it one more time.
It's up to us, all of us.