Seven miles of paved trails made possible by $1 M in grant funds from Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana
By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation
There’s power in a paved road.
For proof, look no further than the small, rural community of Jena, La. Jena — a town of 3,400 people, located in a parish where 68% of residents are considered overweight or obese and 15% are living below the poverty level.
But on a foggy Saturday morning, as mist hovered over a newly paved biking and running/walking trail now cutting through a woodsy patch of town, a handful of Jena residents gathered to make a difference in their community.
It was a simple 5K, held in honor of the now partially constructed Jena Vision Trail. But crossing the finish line first, in less than 29 minutes, was runner Bruce LaCour, who swears that access to a simple running trail saved his life.
“If it wasn’t for a trail like this, I wouldn’t be running,” said LaCour, who, at 51, still winces at the doctor’s report he got a few years ago. “I weighed 240, my cholesterol was high, my blood pressure was high. The doctor told me I wouldn’t be alive much longer if I didn’t make a change.”
Shortly after that, he started walking trails. Then running them.
“In the beginning, I could barely make a quarter mile without getting out of breath,” said LaCour, a Jena native who today lives in Atlanta. He returned to his home town to participate in Saturday’s run. “If people would come out and just start walking the trail, they would prolong their lives. This kind of exercise is the key to a good, healthy life.”
And that’s the kind of change Jena Mayor Murphy McMillin confidently believes will catch on in his community, where a portion of a $1 million grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation’s Challenge Grant project will be used to lay over seven miles of new trails in Jena – and another two miles in surrounding LaSalle Parish. Jena and other parish officials are kicking-in an additional $1 million toward several healthy living initiatives, to be implemented within the next three years.
A ribbon cutting ceremony, held immediately following Saturday’s 5K run/walk, marked the official opening of the first patch of path, which now cuts through Jena Town Park. The path will be expanded in the coming year and will eventually lead past a community garden and public workout stations.
Jena Town Councilman Donny Richardson poses with 5K runners Patrick Bergin, Bruce LaCour and Laurel Crouch.
“This is so much more than a paved trail,” said Mayor McMillin, noting the trail’s expansion will eventually tie every neighborhood and all area schools back to the park. “It’s a symbol of things to come in our community. This is just the beginning.”
McMillin called the BCBSLAF funds a “true game changer” for a small town that’s often otherwise overlooked by major grant and charitable funding sources.
“We are the only rural parish, the only small town, to win this grant,” said McMillin.
Last year, the foundation’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program earmarked $10.2 million for healthy eating and active living projects throughout the state. In the following months, 49 applicants sought funding, with each promising to match or surpass every dollar awarded to them.
In August, BCBSLAF Executive Director Christy Reeves revealed the 12 winning project proposals throughout Louisiana, including the Live Lively LaSalle project (which encompasses the town of Jena). In total, $27 million will be spent on local health initiatives, thanks to the Challenge Grant program and the winning grantee partners.
The grant program is expected to impact an estimated 1.7 million adults and kids across the state. Seeing some of that impact in his own back yard clearly impressed Jena town council member Donny Richardson.“It’s a sign of progress for us,” said Richardson, looking on as LaCour and other top runners of the day cut a bright blue ribbon temporarily strewn across the pathway’s entrance. “It’s bringing such big change to our small town. And we think this will become a place people will want to come to. That people everywhere will want to visit.”