St. Luke’s Todd Nemura with other volunteers building raised garden beds at The Mountain Center in Tobyhanna.
The wavy-leafed lettuce and curly kale ripening in the raised garden beds behind The Mountain Center in Tobyhanna, Monroe County, have been plucked, and the tomato, pepper and eggplants harvested. The end of the growing season marked the successful launch of an innovation collaboration to expand access to fresh, healthy food.
The wooden garden containers at The Mountain Center were built by a team of members from over 12 different stakeholders. They also weeded and fed the veggies under the guidance of the partnering agencies, including St. Luke’s Todd Nemura, MS, community health liaison manager. He obtained grant funding for this project from Pocono Mountains United Way as part of an effort to improve the health of the population in this out-of-the-way corner of Monroe County.
Planting and Partnering
St. Luke University Health Network is planting seeds for better nutrition among the area’s economically challenged people for whom access to fresh foods is a never-ending challenge. The Network also is partnering with the agencies helping these at-risk, geographically isolated and often-forgotten residents overcome critical barriers to health. These include education, lack of transportation, food insecurity, housing issues, childhood wellness, elder health, social connectedness and other social determinants of health, which have plagued them for decades.
“We’re trying to connect needy individuals with services that will help them survive and thrive as contributing members of their community,” says Tim Lee, executive director of Pocono Services for Families and Children, which owns and operates The Mountain Center, the former school turned community safety net. “Todd and St. Luke’s are good partners who are helping us make this happen.” A partial list of other social service agencies with whom they’re working at The Center include Head Start, Habitat for Humanity, WIC, AARP Employment Services, United Way and the Pocono Mountain School District.
“Our goal is to treat the whole individual, physically, socially and emotionally at all stages of their life,” says Nemura, who is a member of the Center’s planning committee.. We continue to look at expanding services to meet the needs of the communities we serve.
Setting Examples, Making Health Happen
A mile down the road at the Clear Run Elementary Center, Nemura helps the school as a member of its wellness committee to plan health programs for students, their families and employees and to rally families to participate. He helped bring in Heather Krick, SLUHN dietician, to give talks on healthy eating, which complemented the school’s efforts to provide cooking demonstrations and pot-luck meals that weave in foods and traditions from the diverse ethnicities in the population.
Seventy-two percent of the 800 school kids qualify for free or reduced cost lunch at the school, which covers grades K-2. They rely on getting a hefty helping of their nutrition while at school.
The school’s parent-teacher organization promotes Zumba dance-based exercise classes and CPR training to adults in the community. Their “Rethink Your Drink” campaign, promoting drinking water instead of sugar-filled beverages, was introduced during “taste-testing” at a school assembly.
“Todd is the catalyst for all of this,” says the school’s co-principal Heidi Donohue. “He’s finding a way to make it all happen.”
Nemura landed a government grant to get kids vision checks and glasses. He arranged for the Star Wellness van to come to the school and provide free dental to students, some of whom had never been to a dentist.
He collects books, toys and gently-used clothing donated by his St. Luke’s University Health Network colleagues and delivers them to the school during the holidays and throughout the year.
“We’re not setting the kids up for success if they’re not having their medical, social and nutritional needs met in addition to receiving a good education,” Nemura says.
Blazing a Trail for Healthy Habits
Back at The Mountain Center, Lee and Nemura discussed plans to plant fruit trees and blaze a walking path behind the building that will eventually reach the local library. This will give the community, starting with its youngest members, easier access to the veggie gardens and services they so desperately need to give them a chance to grow into healthy, productive adults.
“We need to care for our students and community members from a wholistic standpoint,” Principal Donohue says. “Providing these services in school and at The Mountain Center lays a good foundation to put healthy habits into motion.”