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South Jersey's Rural Towns Face Tough Public-Health Issues Similar to Urban Areas

But while many of the problems are similar, the small, often resource-starved communities present unique challenges

south jersey town

There are two New Jerseys, particularly when it comes to public health. There are the urban hubs, older cities in the north and central Jersey with their mix of poverty and prosperity, often sitting side by side with affluent suburbs. And there are the vast rural stretches, including much of the state’s south, with its farming communities and former waterfront factory towns.

True, they both face many of the same public health issues: childhood obesity, undiagnosed and untreated diseases like diabetes and cancer, smoking, and opioid addiction -- to name just a few examples.

But the manner in which they approach these problems can be very different, as can be seen in the way one tiny urban pocket in South Jersey , Salem City, tackled its public-health problems. What they discovered, as they moved ahead, is that it takes a village to keep young folks healthy.

Urban focus?

“A lot of grant opportunities that are available have a bias or focus on urban communities, because that’s where we tend to think of the need. And there certainly is a need there,” said Janan Dave, director of community health with the New Jersey Healthcare Quality Institute.

“But rural communities have needs too. And you have a very different set of challenges with rural communities,” she added, including the distances people need to travel for care and a lack of public transportation. “Very focused, community programs can make a real difference.”

Dave runs the Mayors Wellness Campaign, a program the institute started with the New Jersey League of Municipalities to help mayors pull together resources from local and county organizations and the business community to address public health challenges. A town without a gym nearby started yoga classes in the park, she said, and another mayor worked with local farmers to start a weekly market at town hall.

“We’re really trying to galvanize from the grassroots,” Dave added. “It’s about being more innovative and reaching people where they are because, in rural areas, they’re just so much more spread out.”

This approach also has strong support from Trenton, where acting State Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett has made it a priority to encourage providers of all kinds to collaborate around public health since she assumed the role in August. She quickly launched the department’s Office of Population Health, which she said is designed to “knit together” the many programs DOH runs to address public-health issues throughout its vast network of offices and divisions.

“We want to recalibrate and focus on wellness and prevention,” Bennett told NJ Spotlight on Wednesday. “Our overarching goal is the same with population health,” she continued. “Whether you’re in an urban or a rural community, your public health needs are generally the same. But the manners of delivery change.”

Getting creative

To help keep its rural residents healthy, Bennett said the state has become creative in how it connects them with care. Mobile vans travel to small towns to provide cancer screenings and blood-pressure checks in a parking lot; public health workers visit summer camps to counsel teens on healthy, planned pregnancies; a barber shop program helps men talk to their peers about the importance of colonoscopies. She said the DOH has organized several programs in conjunction with the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, one of three regional maternal and child health centers licensed by the state. The cooperative was established 30 years ago to coordinate rural care around healthy births and families.

Bennett said the department’s Rural Health Office has an advisory committee that is working with Rutgers’ Institute for Families to develop additional strategies to tackle some of the public health problems that are more prevalent in rural areas. Research has shown that some of New Jersey’s rural areas have higher levels of opioid addiction, smoking, obesity and teen pregnancy than the statewide averages for these health concerns.

“We know there are challenges and we work with our partners to bring everyone together,” Bennett said. “The question is, how do we modify things so that the strengths of rural networks can be leveraged to improve rural health,” she added, explaining how qualities like deep ties to the community and a tradition of independence can be harnessed to help people.

Salem City

All of these issues have come together in Salem City, which saw the launch on Thursday of the Salem City Wellness Collaborative, an effort to bring together teens, parents, teachers, clergy, police officers, and others to find effective ways to help young people have safer sex; healthy, planned pregnancies; and better health in general.

The collaborative is led by the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative and is fueled in part by $50,000 in federal funds -- and expertise -- from a national safe-sex group, Advocates for Youth. It builds on a successful peer-mentoring program at Salem City High School created by the Perinatal Cooperative and a county wide philanthropic organization, the Salem Health and Wellness Foundation, which helped fund a 2014 study that focused attention on the public health issue.

Salem was no stranger to community outreach regarding public-health concerns. Founded in 2002, the Salem Wellness Foundation has granted more than $11 million to dozens of local organizations for projects designed to keep county residents healthy. Last year, in grants from $832 to just under $200,000, the foundation helped expand meals-on-wheels and flu shot programs, funded mental-health counselors and fitness classes, and paid for needy county residents to stay two extra weeks at inpatient drug rehabilitation facilities.

Brenda Goins, the Foundation’s executive director, said conversations with local healthcare providers, law enforcement, teachers and others confirmed that teen pregnancy was a widespread concern, along with childhood obesity. Data compiled by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings organization shows that, from 2006-2012, Cumberland County had the highest rate of teen births, with 63 out of 1,000 women age 15-19 having babies; the statewide rate for the same period was 22 out of 1,000. Salem County showed the second-highest rate, with 37 teen births out of 1,000. Camden and Atlantic counties are close behind, with 36 and 35 out of 1,000, respectively, and Cape May recorded 25 out of 1,000 teen births.

“These are big problems, but there’s been no resources to tackle these issues,” Goins said.

Local success

That’s where Advocates for Youth came in. The national organization, which partners with local groups to encourage sexual health among teens, helped the Salem City team identify effective programs and train outreach workers. This led to the Salem City High School program, in which teens in the older grades were taught how to mentor younger students and help them make good decisions when it came to sex. Evening workshops allowed parents to get involved too.

“It can’t just be about the kids. It has to be the kids, the parents, and the community,” Goins said. “And it’s not just about pregnancy and sex. It’s about self esteem and good decision making in general.”

The new Wellness Collaborative seeks to tap into the larger community and use its input and strengths to develop long-term strategies to address teen pregnancy and teen health. Goins said they will develop action teams to examine individual behavior, the availability of health services, and what messages are most effective with teens -- and how best to deliver this communication, whether its via eye-catching messages on social media or through a one-on-one conversation with a coach or pastor.

“These initial meetings are to help people get involved. It’s about having adults know they have a positive role to play,” said Merle Weitz, director of public-health programs for the Perinatal Cooperative. “Young people are less likely to make bad decisions if they see a positive future for themselves. Having trusted adults they can talk to can help them believe in their future.”

Weitz called the funding a luxury that allowed the groups the rare chance to plan, instead of just react to health challenges. The team hopes to craft a program that is uniquely tailored to the region’s rural communities, but also scalable and sustainable.

“Community mobilization, making real changes -- these are the things that are going to bring success and sustain these kind of results,” Goins said. “It could be duplicated in other parts of the state. It puts Salem County in the driver’s seat and small communities don’t usually get that opportunity.”

Lilo H. Stainton is an award-winning reporter who covered politics and public policy in New Jersey for more than a decade and later served as press secretary to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. She has also worked as a communications strategist, campaign director, and advocate for coastal protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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