Heim helps others to protect themselves against disease

When Coleen Heim was growing up in Janesville, her father turned an old Volkswagen into a dune buggy to use in the fields nearby.

Coleen was apprehensive, but her dad was encouraging.

“You can drive it,” he said.

That was typical of him: He never let her shy away from wholesome things that she wanted to do, telling her often, “Yes, you can. You’ll be fine.”

Her mother balanced her father’s urgings toward adventure and opportunity by being unfailingly protective — her constant advocate.

As the longtime director of the Healthy Blair County Coalition, Heim has passed on some of those parental blessings to the larger community.

In November, she was named Penn­sylvania Commu­nity Rural Health Leader of the Year for leading an initiative that encourages people in the county toward better versions of themselves — encouragement that has helped protect against disease and death.

Statistics bear it out: in 2010, Blair was 63rd out of Pennsyl­vania’s 67 counties in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation rankings of “health outcomes,” which reflect length and quality of life.

It’s now 45th.

Her efforts were “instrumental” in achieving that improvement, stated a news release on the award, which was conferred by the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health.

Differences in opportunities account for much of the differences in health outcomes, according to the foundation.

Those opportunities vary based on factors that include quality of schools, access to healthy foods, to quality health care and the availability of affordable housing in safe environments, according to the foundation.

In Blair County, Heim’s coalition — with its 21-member steering committee and 12 work groups — has focused on tobacco use and obesity, creating programs to discourage smoking and encourage healthy activities like walking, running and biking.

Other areas of emphasis include dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, creation of workplace wellness initiatives, identification of gaps in mental health services for young people, improvement in access to dental care and the amelioration of poverty.

A key to making it work has been a unified approach with a common agenda — a strategy based on the findings of a Stanford University study that compared isolated vs. collective efforts in the field, Heim said.

The kind of improvements that the coalition is working on never occur all at once.

“It’s a slow burn,” Heim said, quoting a coalition member. “Little by little.”

It requires alterations in the county’s “culture,” in its physical, social, emotional and economic health, all of which are interrelated, she said.

It’s satisfying to see past the statistics, to see living evidence of programs working, she indicated.

A weight-loss challenge held under the aegis of the coalition resulted in 819 workers losing a total of 8,000 pounds, she said.

Individually, those losses could be “life-changing,” she said.

Participants were delighted to finally be able to tie their shoes and play with their grandkids in the yard, she said.

The jump from 63rd to 45th is “pretty monumental,” said Larry Baronner, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health.

Baronner nominated Heim for the award.

It’s “largely attributable” to her and to “all the committees she’s put together,” said Baronner, who’s a member of some of those committees.

She’s managed to do it on “very limited funding,” Baronner said.

The foundation of the effort to create a healthier community has been her oversight of the work of the county’s three hospitals, UPMC Altoona, Tyrone Regional Health Network and Conemaugh Nason Medical Center in Roaring Spring, to conduct a joint needs assessment every three years.

The Affordable Care Act makes such an assessment mandatory for non-profit hospitals, Baronner said.

It’s no longer mandatory for Nason, which is part of a for-profit operation, but that hospital, nevertheless, has chosen to continue the work — and to continue to do it in cooperation with the other two hospitals, Baronner said.

Under Heim’s encouragement, the hospitals have taken the task seriously, in contrast to many other hospitals in Pennsylvania, which work on their own and fulfill the obligation by assigning someone to “crank out” a document that just meets the basic requirements, according to Baronner.

It isn’t easy to coordinate the coalition, as virtually everyone is a volunteer, Baronner said.

“It’s somewhat like herding cats,” he said. “But she’s very good at making the case that a healthier Blair County benefits everybody, including (their) financial bottom line(s).”

“I’m constantly inviting people to meetings,” Heim said. “They keep coming to try to figure out what we can do better.”

“I look back and appreciate how I grew up,” she said. “I wish all kids had that.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

THE HEIM FILE:

Name: Coleen Heim

Age: 63

Family: Husband, Robert; and son, Brandon

Position: Director of Healthy Blair County Coalition

Residence: Grew up in Janesville; now lives in Hollidaysburg

Education: Moshannon Valley School District; earned bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and corrections (though she didn’t want to become a police officer), and a master’s degree in health education from Penn State

Employment: Worked in state Department of Education helping to develop the Student Assistance Program for at-risk kids. (“I tend to fall into positions,” she said.) Works as a consultant in development of substance abuse prevention and anti-bullying programs in schools and for agencies and community organizations. Helped to develop a curriculum for dealing with drug and alcohol abuse for educators in Leningrad, U.S.S.R. (She was scared to go, but her dad insisted.)

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