Neighbors helping neighbors improve community health

The town of Mullens, West Virginia, lies nestled along the banks of the scenic Guyandotte River in the heart of Wyoming County – one of the unhealthiest areas in the United States.

On a muggy August evening, WVU School of Public Health Associate Research Professor Michael McCawley, PhD, sits in a gymnasium scrawling out a sign inviting folks to enjoy the barbeque chicken and pork he and his wife, Marge, are heating up in the Mullens Opportunity Center’s kitchen. People of all ages trickle in through the doors, carrying covered dishes for a healthy potluck.

Dr. McCawley’s hope is that with a little guidance and a strong community network of neighbors helping neighbors, the citizens of Wyoming County will be the first in their region to spearhead a revolution in reversing discouraging health trends.

“What we’d like to see are community volunteers for the programs we want to help people start in this community. The idea that we have is to lay out some simple programs, show people how to start them off, get them started, and let the people here keep them going,” McCawley said.

With support from a Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation grant, the Southern West Virginia Lifestyles Project (SWVL, pronounced ‘swivel’) is the result of a collaborative effort by faculty and students representing WVU’s schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health. The project is expected to be a sustained effort for years to come, and McCawley plans to extend the SWVL program to Boone and McDowell counties in the near future.

SWVL is gaining traction in Mullens due to the outreach efforts of the Wyoming County Ministerial Association – a cooperative assembly of church leaders that’s attempting to recruit community leaders for SWVL from the pulpit.

“The reason why I want to do this is that people need to feel supported, and people need to be called to do what’s right,” McCawley said to the crowd gathered at the Mullens Opportunity Center potluck. “Pastors understand what it means to be called, and we want you to start calling on your friends and neighbors to do the right things for themselves and your community.”

As the Mullens gathering offered the chance for neighbors to connect and learn how to spread the word about SWVL, health professionals were on hand offering blood glucose screenings and educational resources about diabetes, tobacco cessation resources, and preventing falls. McCawley heartily encouraged attendees to return at a future event to contribute their own recipes for one of SWVL’s first initiatives, Eat Well Wyoming.

“We’ll be taking the recipes and having dietitians look at them to see what tweaks could be made,” McCawley said. “The goal is to show how a few simple changes can make our favorite things to eat a lot better for us and have it taste just as good.”

The overhauled recipes will become an Eat Well Wyoming cookbook that will make its way into homes throughout the area.

SWVL’s success largely depends on finding enthusiastic community leaders who are willing to talk about their health issues and pursuit of lifestyle changes. “When I learned of the new WVU School of Public Health and that Dr. McCawley and others may want to bring their programs in Wyoming County, I knew I had to get involved,” said David “Bugs” Stover, a longtime Mullens resident, schoolteacher, and county circuit clerk.

Stover is well known in Wyoming County. The former high school athlete ran until he was 30, and his weight never climbed past 142 lbs. When he stopped running, his weight ballooned to 273 lbs., and his overall health declined.

“After a few years of not running, I started back but have never returned to a good weight,” Stover said. “Just after winning the election for circuit clerk and still coaching the girls’ soccer team at Wyoming East High School, I had a near-heart attack and ended up getting five heart stents just before taking office.”

Since then, Stover has dropped more than 50 lbs., and is determined to keep going. His commitment to hiking, biking, running, and canoeing has combined with his deep sense of activism to complete long distance walks and canoe trips to draw recognition to issues he supports, such as preservation of West Virginia’s coal industry and improvement of highways. In 2012, Stover walked from his home to Washington, D.C. It was his third time making the trip.

This inspired Stover to suggest to McCawley that SWVL and the Wyoming County Ministerial Association organize a pilgrimage of sorts – a virtual walk from Pineville, West Virginia to Jerusalem. The goal is for participants to make the commitment to walk at least two miles a day toward a cumulative goal of over 6,000 miles – bringing change to the people of Wyoming County physically, mentally, and possibly spiritually. McCawley, Stover, and Wyoming County residents kick off their virtual walk to Jerusalem this fall in Pineville, and upon the community’s completion of the 6,000 miles, McCawley plans to travel to complete the last six miles of the trek in Israel.

Stover’s hope is that SWVL will be one of several programs in southern West Virginia helping to improve the quality of life – expanding infrastructure, creating jobs, and boosting overall well-being.

“We in the southern coalfields have sent a lot of resources to WVU over many decades, not the least of which has been our sons and daughters, and the treasure it takes to get and keep them there. We hope SWVL, this effort from Dr. McCawley and the WVU School of Public Health, will help us create a place where, if they choose, our daughters and sons are able to return home.”