Close your eyes and think of what rural means to you. Is it open spaces, rolling fields, blue skies? Maybe a two-block Main Street with flags blowing in the breeze. What about neighbors saying hi to each other from front porches? These idyllic, peaceful scenes are so often how rural communities are depicted in books and movies. So why, in everyday conversations, do they get so much negative attention?
In news reports and articles, we hear about the challenges rural communities face: low employment rates, high rates of chronic disease and obesity, diseases of despair. But what about the incredible assets these communities have? That’s why we’re celebrating National Rural Health Day this November 21! Each year, The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health celebrates the third Thursday of November as a day to highlight the “Power of Rural,” showcasing the unique assets and needs of rural communities.
Through NRPA’s grant work, we’re working to support this mission and promote the positive impact rural communities have. Since 2018, NRPA has intentionally funded 20 rural park and recreation agencies across the country through funding from the Walmart Foundation. Through the Healthy Out-of-School Time grant work, these agencies have gone above and beyond in the programs and services they offer to their communities.
Serving Communities of All Ages
Rural agencies have also influenced the lives of older adults through the Healthy Aging in Parks initiative, which brings Arthritis Appropriate Evidence-Based Interventions to local park and recreation agencies. In over 90 rural agencies across the country, older adults suffering from chronic diseases are engaging in physical activity classes such as Walk With Ease, Fit & Strong!, and Active Living Every Day. These classes are improving the physical, mental, emotional and social health of the participants. Participants are happy with the program and outcomes, with one stating, “I am more active than I have been in all my adult life. I have been able to get off my diabetic medications because of this program. Best of all, I am happier than at any other time in my life."
Not only do rural park and recreation agencies offer room for recreational physical activity and safe spaces for out-of-school time programs and camps, but staff has the opportunity to serve a crucial role. We see so often that as mentors, park and recreation staff can be the one positive influence in children’s lives and can support the reversal of behaviors, including reducing obesity rates, preventing substance abuse disorders, and addressing social and emotional needs.
Additional social opportunities live in intergenerational programming. Especially in smaller communities, park and recreation facilities serve as community hubs, operating as shared-use spaces that connect neighbors of all ages with services and programs to lead a healthy life. This intergenerational connection creates space to learn from others, share skills and serve as mentors or mentees. Creating social connections among generations is an overarching piece of community wellness and a great need with emerging threats around social isolation, loneliness, depression, substance use and alarming rates of suicide.
But we realize that this work can’t be done in a silo. A key asset of rural areas is the strength of the community to support healthy behaviors across many avenues. From institutional assets like schools and community centers to the economic assets of local business, to the very people who make up the community and the unique traditions and skills they bring to the table — these are what add to the pride and success of our rural communities.
Access to high-quality parks and recreation spaces is critical to the success of these programs and to live a healthy life. Today, 1 in 3 people do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of home, and some that do, do not have a quality or welcoming space. Also, the distribution of park and recreation services is not equitable across all regions of the United States. Rural communities often experience a lack of amenities to meet the needs of their communities, with most regions of the country not exceeding 30 percent of rural communities with less than 20,000 people being served by park and recreation agencies.
NRPA’s Park Access initiative aims to address these inequities and provide resources and best practices to agencies of all sizes through the 10 Minute Walk campaign, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Urban Land Institute. Over the last two years, NRPA has awarded funding to six rural communities to enhance park access and quality. These communities are developing park and greenway master plans, activating park spaces, addressing access barriers, and meaningfully engaging their communities throughout the process. A study published by Active Living Research in 2015, titled Promoting Active Living in Rural Communities, demonstrates that when rural communities enhance park and recreation spaces and provide active transportation access to these sites, rural communities are successfully able to address active living and obesity challenges.
Some ways in which we’ve seen rural park and recreation agencies build on the strength of the community to deliver quality physical and mental benefits to their neighbors include:
- Thinking creatively about transportation. Work with local organizations like the school district or a community college to create a shared-use agreement around transportation to shuttle kids to meal sites and programs.
- Building on community assets. Look to where the people are for support, like a church or bible school, a library, programs for seniors, or hospitals. Many times, infrastructure is already in place in these settings, and sharing a meal program or educational opportunity is a natural fit.
- Communicating openly about the programs. The more the community hears that these programs are for all, and enrichment opportunities are provided, the more stigma toward free food is broken down. Position programs as enrichment offerings, academic support, physical activity and fun with the added bonus of a healthy meal or snack.
- Creating programming and policies based on overall community health supports vitality, leading to a healthy workforce, a vibrant community, and sustainable systems change.
- Promoting the value of local agriculture systems. Supporting infrastructure, such as farmers markets, CSA programs, or working to accept SNAP or other social service benefits at markets. By supporting local food access roles, P&R agencies have the opportunity to provide access to foods through markets, to provide nutrition education and the value of eating fresh and local, while building relationships across the community and stimulating the local economy.
NRPA is proud to celebrate the strength of rural communities across the country!
Maureen Acquino is an NRPA Health and Wellness Program Manager.