Shannon McAlister, director of the John 3:16 center in Littleton, North Carolina, hangs off the monkey bars on the facility's playground. Photo by Shawn Poynter

Shannon McAlister is one adult who’s not afraid to swing upside down from the playground monkey bars. Perhaps that’s because she’s one of nearly 300 people who helped build that playground. Once you understand how things are connected – whether it’s the bonds between people or the bolts that hold a playground structure together – you’re more likely to trust the results.

That’s one of the premises of Healthy Places NC, a 10-year, $100 million initiative of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a North Carolina philanthropy located in Winston-Salem. By focusing on the relationships between people, organizations, and ideas, residents in some of North Carolina’s poorest rural communities are taking the lead to improve their overall health and quality of life.

McAlister is the executive director of the John 3:16 center in Littleton, North Carolina (pop. 659), on the west side of Halifax County. Littleton lies about 60 miles northeast of Raleigh on the edge of the state’s coastal plain. It’s a diverse community, with a roughly even split between white and African American residents. The median income in 2013 was estimated at half to two-thirds the national figure.

For years, the Center has provided a wide range of family support services to needy families, ranging from emergency food assistance to job training to childcare. But since she became involved in Healthy Places, McAlister has discovered many new connections between needs, opportunities and allies under the umbrella of health and wellness.

“Working here for 10 years I’ve seen so many health issues, like childhood diabetes increasing and more children who are obese. When you have a four year old who’s wearing size 16, you want to help in some way.”

Shannon McAlister, director of the John 3:16 center in Littleton, North Carolina. Photo by Shawn Poynter.
Shannon McAlister, director of the John 3:16 center in Littleton, North Carolina. Photo by Shawn Poynter.

The John 3:16 Center’s programs didn’t initially focus on health, but through Healthy Places, McAlister has found many ways to weave messages of healthy eating and active living throughout the center’s work. In addition to a brand new KaBOOM! playground, the center also built a quarter-mile walking trail that is open to all community members. In its parenting programs, center staff talk about the importance of physical activity and take parents on shopping trips to learn how to create healthy meals on a tight budget. Children who are part of the center’s child care program talk about healthy food choices and learn to read and understand nutrition labels at an early age. And of course, there is lots and lots of playground time.

“We’ve seen how important it is to include health as a facet and how much it affects the children that we’re serving especially,” says McAlister. She remembers seeing the light bulb above the head of one parent when she grasped the benefits of exercise in a new way. “We took her kids outside for just that little bit of time, and that helped the kids to focus better. It was something that she hadn’t been doing at home and she realized that it could actually help her when they weren’t listening and they weren’t focusing and they were bouncing off the walls. She saw how active living could actually help contribute to positive discipline. That’s a great thing to have click in the mind of a parent.”

McAlister also credits the community-led approach of Healthy Places with helping her create a network of new partners throughout the county.

“I think it’s very easy for organizations and groups to end up feeling isolated, like ‘we’re the only ones that are doing this’ because they’re not aware,” she says. “Because we’re starting to come together better, we’re finding out what actually is going on that we weren’t aware of in the past and we’re sharing opportunities better. It opened lines of communications. I think we’ve worked together better because of it and there have been other groups that some of us weren’t aware of that were doing work in the county.”

For example, McAlister now knows of another Halifax County organization called A Better Chance, A Better Community offering youth development services in Enfield, North Carolina, roughly a half hour by car. She can pick up the phone and share ideas about healthy eating and active living programs and events with its director. The richer program offerings and connections are valuable, but McAlister also sees the common denominator of health driving a deeper, longer-term change for this community.

“I think our community is starting to take more ownership of its health. It affects everyone. Even people who are healthy have family members who are not. I think if we start pulling together and we’re really building a community of health, then [even when the Trust’s involvement ends] the community can still continue strong and be able to continue to build on the lessons learned over the years.”

Betsey Russell interviewed Shannon McAlister as part of her research for a report on the Healthy Places NC initiative for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. The report, The Beginning of Change: The Voices and Faces of Healthy Places NC, covers four of the seven rural communities that are participating in the initiative.

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