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A new university program seeks to save lives by promoting wellness rather than treating illness.
Even before the first four Community Wellness Advocates graduated last spring they had convinced friends in Thorne Bay, Klawock, Haines and Pelican to buckle up, start exercising and quit smoking.
That kind of prevention is the goal of the program, a collaborative effort of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and University of Alaska.
``It's better to prevent a heart attack than to have somebody try to recover from it,'' said program coordinator Deanne Boisvert. ``It's not just the cost. It's the suffering the person and the family has to go through.''
By training people who live in small Alaska towns as health educators, Boisvert expects to see declines in diabetes, heart disease and, eventually, death.
A 1998 report by SEARHC found that half the deaths of Southeast Alaska Natives could have been avoided through lifestyle changes, including giving up tobacco, drinking less alcohol, consuming a lower-fat diet and exercising more. Lack of exercise increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis and depression.
Community wellness advocates have been used successfully in California and the Boston area, where they are called lay health advisers, Boisvert said. Now that the first four wellness advocates are trained and six more are enrolled, SEARHC is trying to find money to pay them to work in at least six Southeast towns.
``This is the first time that this has been really done in Alaska,'' Boisvert said. ``What the outcome or the impact is we won't know until (we're) down the road a little.''
On an individual basis, the wellness advocates already have made a difference. As part of the training, Thorne Bay student Michelle Woods had to do a health risk appraisal of five people, then counsel them on how to improve their health.
``I know one of the people has started an active program in stopping smoking, another one has started using their seat belt and using a life preserver, another one has started a walking program,'' Woods said.
Woods also started walking more because of the class. She and classmate Betty Svensson from Pelican are training to hike the Chilkoot Trail this fall.
Woods and Svensson also successfully applied for grants to promote healthier living in their towns. Woods' grant will fund an assessment of community health resources and needs in Thorne Bay and the organization of a community wellness consortium to address them.
Svensson received a $10,000 Community Health Grant to develop physical activities for people in Pelican. With just a quarter mile of boardwalk, Pelican residents don't have many options for exercise, Svensson said. In the winter she sometimes jogs back and forth in the school gym, but admits ``it gets boring.''
The grant opened up new possibilities, including a climbing wall.
None of it would have happened without the Community Wellness Advocate training, said Svensson, who was a registered nurse. The class made her realize how important prevention and education are in small towns.
``When you have a healthy community you have a more prosperous community and a happier community,'' Svensson said. ``And in Pelican we definitely need some happiness here to counter all the hardships.''