Central Kansas community collaborates to address health needs amid COVID-19

Team members of the community collaboration group in Ellsworth County, central Kansas.Team members of the community collaboration group in Ellsworth County, central Kansas.

Among the focus areas for hospitals participating in the Compass Network is Community Collaboration and Integration. While the COVID-19 public health emergency has made working closely with others more challenging, community members in the central Kansas county of Ellsworth (pop. 6,231) saw it as an opportunity to forge partnerships to address health needs.

The community collaboration began organically at the community preparedness meeting held by Compass member Ellsworth County Medical Center in September, 2020. Director of Population Health Tina Davis said during the meeting she was comparing notes with Kerianne Ehrlich, Director of the Ellsworth County Health Department.

"We were seeing an increase in depression and anxiety" among other things, said Davis. "We decided based on what we were seeing that we needed to find ways to address needs in our community.” She said they invited Central Kansas Mental Health, the Ellsworth County Ministerial Alliance, and Ellsworth County Economic Development to meet with the health department and medical center.

At the health department, Ehrlich said the impetus was born of wanting to get core community organizations on the same page.

"All of these different entities were dealing with similar struggles related to COVID response. Getting together was a way to hash out and brainstorm ideas to respond to issues we were all facing and to reduce redundancies," Ehrlich said. "Then it transformed into the campaign group we have now, particularly given the participation of Central Kansas Mental Health as well as Mosaic," she said, referring to the disability services and support organization in Ellsworth.

The campaign was named #BecauseWeCare as a way for all organizations to promote unified messages across the Ellsworth community. The community-based health improvement efforts that the group have launched together are many and so far include:

  • Mental health training was coordinated via a grant secured by the group, open to any community member but focused on law enforcement officials.
  • Daily mental-health-focused calendar listings were published in the local newspaper, sponsored by local business partners and the Kansas State University Research and Extension.
  • A coordinated social media campaign to reach community members coping with depression and stress and connect them with resources available to help them.
  • A centralized list of available financial resources in the community to assist with housing, utilities, food, and items like diapers and other family essentials.
  • Among such resources was a group of volunteers also coordinated by the group who organized a grocery “click-list” for curbside pick-up for community members.
  • Partnered with United Way to set up a 211 phone number to help more widely avail the centralized resource list.
  • Drive-by parades for the community nursing homes and Mosaic disability homes to help lift spirits for those that have been most confined to their living quarters over the last year.
  • An “Adopt A Neighbor” program to coordinate volunteers interested in helping lift the spirits of nursing and disability home residents and others in the community. Volunteers sent letters, made phone calls, and some organized groups to sing outside neighbors’ doors. Thirty people so far have been adopted.
  • Weekly virtual art therapy classes in partnership with Emporia State University for families and individuals. Davis from the medical center said these art classes have been a particularly pleasant success. “People come together and are laughing and just enjoying life without having to be out in public and worried about exposure,” she said. Davis said the group is working to extend the program via the Mosaic disability organization and the community nursing homes.

The list of community projects initiated in Ellsworth County is long and admirable, especially for a community group that began meeting just six months ago. Of all their group’s efforts, though, Davis and Ehrlich think a recent development may be the most promising.

Davis said the group is working with Central Kansas Mental Health to facilitate parent-initiated referrals to them for school children who have behavioral issues or are otherwise struggling.

“The intent is to help children cope with whatever issues they may be dealing with, particularly as a result of COVID,” Davis said. “Our community’s kids need our help as much as anyone and I’m hopeful this project will be among our most significant successes.”

Ehrlich agreed and said the numerous efforts have been an eye-opening experience.

“Just seeing how the various facets of our county came together behind one common goal was pretty impressive for a county our size,” she said. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of all this if I would be working with half of these people so closely, I probably would have said ‘no.’ The group has grown to include so many others—the amount and variety of those interested in helping out was just impressive. From all that has happened because of COVID, we can say here that one positive has been the forming of this collaboration in our community, which will hopefully last long after the public health emergency is behind us.”

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