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The RJWF-NRPA Award for Health Equity highlights the work of strengthening this movement through systems-level change
In 2015, NRPA was awarded a seven-year grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to establish the RWJF-NRPA Award for Health Equity, one of NRPA’s Spotlight Awards. Given annually, this award recognized park and recreation professionals who worked to reduce health disparities and advance systems-level change in their communities to achieve health equity. As this grant and award came to a close in 2022, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on the impact of the work done by the award winners and by the field of parks and recreation as a whole.
Through the course of this seven-year program, the work performed by award recipients reflected both globally-recognized public health issues and community-specific issues. In their roles as park and recreation professionals and advocates, systems change was achieved — and continues to be advanced — through their work today.
Dr. Steven Elliott Marcus, President and CEO, Health Foundation of South Florida
As president and CEO of Health Foundation of South Florida, Dr. Steven Elliott Marcus dedicated his time to the residents of Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties to promote healthy living. Under his leadership, the foundation revitalized its grant program and focused on three pressing health factors: behavioral health; healthy eating, active communities; and preventative measures and primary care. As part of this focus, Dr. Marcus collaborated with the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department to advance complete streets, age-friendly parks, outdoor fitness equipment, safe routes to parks, safe routes to aging in place and the establishment of a health and community design element within the Miami-Dade County Comprehensive Development Master Plan. The collaboration between community members, organizations, local public health advocates and community leaders proved to be a critical step toward a successful and sustainable change in the lives of the South Florida residents.
Patricia (Patti) Solano, Superintendent of Community Services, City of Riverside (California) Parks, Recreation and Community Services
Along with a direct approach to health equity, Patti Solano partnered with countless private, public and nonprofit agencies that promote healthy lifestyles. With these partners, she created the R.I.G.H.T. Program (Riverside Is Getting Healthy Together), which promoted healthy living throughout the city and increased access to fitness, knowledge of health and educational opportunities. Other initiatives Solano championed were HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) and NEOP (Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention), which completely changed the lives of Riverside residents by creating a healthier environment for the community. Solano, with the support of her team, worked to create four priorities for a healthy initiative: healthy eating, active living, tobacco-use reduction, and building safe and healthy communities. In addition, she championed expanding out-of-school time programs to include nutrition education classes and the annual “Spring into Health” event, which promoted healthy and active living. To ensure a lasting effect on the City of Riverside, Solano created the “Healthier Food and Beverage Guidelines” policy, adopted in 2015.
Becky Tuttle, Director of Community Development, Greater Wichita (Kansas) YMCA/Chairperson, Health & Wellness Coalition of Wichita
By working in conjunction with parks and recreation to create strategies focused on improving access to healthy foods, increasing physical activity and decreasing use of tobacco, Becky Tuttle supported programs that provide unique opportunities for all parts of the community and are a vital part of the economic, cultural and physical health of Wichita. As the chair of the Health & Wellness Coalition of Wichita, Tuttle partnered with the City of Wichita Parks and Recreation department to address one of the most significant barriers to health in the community: transportation. She was instrumental in implementing the Bike Share ICT program, launched in May 2017, providing community members with a reliable and healthy transportation alternative. Additionally, Tuttle has played a critical role in conducting a community health assessment and planning process across Sedgwick County to address food insecurity, healthy behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, the physical built environment, and infant mortality.
Because of Tuttle’s understanding of the necessities to create a healthy environment for the Wichita area, the organizations she worked with helped establish local policies and ordinances that focus on making parks safe and usable. Her work to improve the health and wellness of Wichita continues to impact the community.
Tina Fleming, Director, and Lindsey Jorstad, Community Services Outreach Manager, Gwinnett County (Georgia) Department of Community Services
Tina Fleming and Lindsey Jorstad championed the advancement of health equity across the community, ensuring all youth and families in Gwinnett County have access to quality park and recreation programs and amenities. With concerns for low-income youth not having access to nutritious school-provided meals over the summer, Jorstad and Fleming worked to form a partnership to provide healthy meals through the Summer Food Service Program at Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation (GCPR) sites. GCPR also began introducing healthy lifestyle concepts in all activities by partnering with subject matter experts and recruiting college interns to provide support. Their approach to community health also positively impacted residents through GCPR’s free summer camp swim lesson program. To reduce the risk of aquatics-related emergencies, they teamed up with the Gwinnett Parks Foundation to offer lessons at camp locations, which serve a significant number of low-income Black and Hispanic/Latinx youth, while reinforcing take-home materials for parents and caregivers to prevent potential incidents in and around water.
Daryl Quarles, Manager of Senior Programs, Dallas Park and Recreation Department; and Carol Zernial, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility and Foundation Executive Director of WellMed Medical Management Inc., WellMed Charitable Foundation
The Dallas Park and Recreation Department (DPRD) Recreation Services Division in Texas piloted a chronic illness unit within the senior services area at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center. Results quickly showed that clients were engaged and more proactive in learning about, monitoring and encouraging others in chronic illness care, such as diabetes, asthma, obesity and kidney disease. DPRD wanted to expand this outreach to the Red Bird Area of Oak Cliff, a community historically and consistently left out of economic development, social services, healthcare and transportation options. Carol Zernial partnered with Daryl Quarles to lead Dallas’ collaboration with the city and WellMed Medical Management, culminating in a senior center that has invigorated a significant and vulnerable population to experience amenities and programs to support their well-being.
This collaboration also showcased the power of private-public partnerships in supporting community health and well-being. In the case of the senior center, WellMed supported the purchase of the 22,000-square-foot space adjacent to a medical office, while the DPRD provides staff and programming to the center. Together, the partners worked to identify the needs of older adults in the community and develop programs and initiatives to support those needs. Additionally, a scholarship fund has been established to support participation and eliminate financial barriers to the programs for older adults with limited income.
Emilie Harmeyer, ShreveCorps Program Director, Shreveport Green program, in conjunction with Caddo Parish (Louisiana) Parks and Recreation
Led by Emilie Harmeyer, the Shreveport Green program enabled adults of all ages and backgrounds to earn living allowances and scholarships through membership in the ShreveCorps AmeriCorps program, all while increasing their own understanding of nutrition, gardening, and personal and professional development. Harmeyer’s work led to the creation of 10 new community gardens and the revitalization of three others. The program’s flagship garden, the MLK Community Garden, was founded in partnership with Caddo Parish Parks and Recreation and is a quarter-acre plot that includes fruit trees, vegetables and gathering spaces. The garden also is home to a wide variety of community events, such as volunteer projects, workshops and potlucks. With this network of gardens, Harmeyer aspired to make fresh fruits and vegetables accessible to people in all areas of Shreveport. Additionally, Harmeyer consulted on Shreveport Green’s Mobile Market program, offering mini farmers markets in food deserts throughout Shreveport to increase access to fresh vegetables. During her time directing this program, Harmeyer expanded it from four monthly locations to 10 and extended the season to year-round. In 2020, she adapted the program to meet coronavirus (COVID-19) safety regulations, providing weekly deliveries of five to 10 pounds of produce and healthy recipes directly to beneficiaries’ doors.
Velma Bailey, Founder and CEO, Saint Louis Torchbearers 2
Velma Bailey established Saint Louis Torchbearers 2, a grassroots nonprofit, with the goal to build partnerships with government, private, social, cultural and civic entities to introduce a systems-change approach to improve health equity, teach youth to serve as good stewards of the environment, and increase public safety among youth. The coalition, including a formal partnership with the St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry, successfully established ways to positively impact the health, welfare and safety of inner-city children through a 10-week summer day camp. Each year, 50 children, parents, diverse partners and 100 volunteers join to participate in hours of outdoor recreation activities and eat nutritious food to improve the cognitive, social/emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the campers, plus gain access to transportation to take 20 field trips. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bailey and her partners were able to offer valuable academic, life and career awareness skills. Many of the partners were able to instruct students virtually via Zoom thanks to a partner organization that provided a “hot spot” and electronic devices in a park location.
NRPA is grateful for the opportunity to honor these park and recreation champions through this partnership with RWJF. Learn more about NRPA’s award program .
To hear more about how these RWJF-NRPA Award for Health Equity winners have worked to advance health equity, tune in to the January bonus episode of Open Space Radio.
Maureen Neumann (she/her) is Senior Health Program Manager at NRPA.