By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

Lydia Martin, BCBSLAF Strategic Initiatives Manager
Lydia Martin, BCBSLAF Strategic Initiatives Manager

In the battle to turn around Louisiana’s dismal health statistics, BCBSLAF’s own Lydia Martin could be considered a true foot soldier on the front lines of this war. For the past two years, as the foundation’s strategic initiatives manager, she’s helmed our bold Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program, which dumped $10.2 million (and spurred nearly $20 million additional in matching dollars) into wellness initiatives across the state. It was Martin’s job to stay on top of our 12 main projects, which encompassed some 200 organizations, making sure everyone reached the foundation’s goals, as well as their own. She’s been the cheerleader when things went well. And the heavy when things went awry. She’s at the ribbon cuttings, the bell ringings, the launch parties, the community tours, the dinners, the community meetings, the strategy sessions, the budget discussions…. You name the Challenge Grant moment, Martin was likely there. With so many ends stretching in different directions across the state, her job, at times, may have felt a bit like herding cats. But more than 24 months later, at the top of our final Challenge Grant year, our project partners have made tremendous strides in changing the health culture in communities statewide. And in many ways, we have Martin to thank for making this “challenge” a success story.

So, we wanted to take a few moments to highlight Martin, and let her brag about all the ways Challenge Grant has become so much more than expected, now inspiring even more projects in all corners of our state.

Q: Are you surprised by the new projects that have sprung up as a result of our Challenge Grant work? That people are willing to be a part of making their communities healthier, not because we are giving any extra dollars to do it, but just because they are inspired by the work happening in their neighborhoods?

Growing LA community farming center grand opening in New Orleans
Martin has some fun during Growing LA’s community farming center grand opening in New Orleans.

A: Yes, so many things have come up that we don’t think of as being part of our Challenge Grant, because we aren’t funding it in any way. But they started because of Challenge Grant supported projects. For instance, in Shreveport, late in the first year, groups were coming to the table wanting to partner with Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors. And we had to tell them, “You understand, you’re not going to get any money?” And they said, “Yes, we just want to want be part of it. “

Q: And it’s not just non-profit types and municipalities asking to participate. It’s everyday individuals, too.

A: Yes, which is really inspiring. In New Iberia, there’s a lady who just decided to go and start a food hub after seeing all the new green houses and gardening co-ops, which we helped fund. She noticed that the co-ops are not located conveniently for everyone in the community’s west end, where the need is greatest. So she’s turning an old west end nightclub into a food hub, even raising her own funds to do it. She saw a need and a way she could help and she solved the problem. My understanding is the hub is coming along pretty quickly, now, too.

Q: And in the same community, we saw a retiree pitch in to build a cold storage shed to help keep all that new produce cool. Again, he just did it on his own, right?

A: Yes, he lives next door to the Sugar City Growers Co-op, which is grant-supported. And he just stopped by and said, basically, “What’s going on here? Do you need help?”

Q: These are great stories, and there’s so many of them.

A: So many positive stories to share, yes. Like Mayor Murphy McMillin in Jena – he focused his project (Live Lively LaSalle) not just on the town of Jena, but on the whole parish. Now he wants to keep going, so after his term ends this year, he’ll lead a newly-developed council that will create policies affecting the economy and wellness of the whole region. And in the Monroe area, Pam Barton (Ouachita Well), demanded her city add sidewalks to a newly-built subdivision. They said it costs too much, so she just gave them facts we already know so well — people in neighborhoods with sidewalks are healthier. They walk more. And as a result of her influence, they spent an additional $2 million to pay for sidewalks.

Q: All this, and our partners are earning more grant money, too.

A: Not from us, but the work we’ve supported has spawned grants from other sources to feed into Challenge Grant works.

Q: Lydia, you’re clearly very passionate about the work you’re doing. I’ve seen you first hand, connecting with our partners, really putting yourself out there to help them. What drives this passion?

A: Well, I saw my parents, my role models, serving others through their work. I was an air force brat, born on a base in Oscoda, Michigan. My dad was a B-52 bomber pilot. My mom was a teacher for some time.

Q: So your dad was always in service of his country, your mom served kids as an

educator. I guess you had a front row seat into what it means to be a community servant.

A: I think so, yes. So, a lot of my work roles have revolved around some sort of service to others. I was a professional Girl Scout, so to speak, for 20 years, running outdoor programs before becoming regional director of membership and eventually a deputy director. And now with Challenge Grant, it just feels like a natural fit for me. It’s also about being in service to others, helping communities better themselves by living healthier, happier, longer lives.

Q: I’ve heard you talk about how much this job has impacted you, too, on a personal level. Can you explain that a little more?

A: Well, I’ve had to start looking at my own health. I mean, my mom was raised in Louisiana and she was a good cook, like everyone in the south. We used food to celebrate birthdays, good grades, happy times, sad times — things revolve around food, that’s the culture. But my own dad had a massive heart attack and died at 63. That was sobering. You always think your parents are going be around forever. Shortly after, my mom found out she had diabetes and had to have stents put in her heart. And I thought, well, heart disease and diabetes — that’s my potential future! And I had to think about it seriously.

Q: So you’ve adopted some of the very messages and tools we’re trying to spread to others in the state – like

eating local and backyard gardening, right?

A: Right. I’ve added my own backyard garden and I’ve made a real effort to be closer to my food. I’ve launched my own personal yard to table initiative. I love going back there and picking my green beans and cooking them up for dinner. But I have to admit, the last two growing seasons, I’ve been traveling so much for Challenge Grant, I haven’t had time to tend to my garden. Gardens have to be tended to!

Q: How’s that for irony? You are so busy helping towns and schools across the state launch community gardens, your own garden at home has been neglected…

A: I know. And gardening can be so peaceful. It’s a great way to take the stress out of a day. But it’s been great spending time with people from different parts of the state and encouraging them to be the best they can be at what they’re doing. I mean, that’s my job, I’m the boots on the ground to go out there to see and do and experience and be a part of the projects as much as possible.


Q: And somehow, you also find the time to care for three dogs and spend time with your spouse!

A: Yes. But thankfully, they have a way of taking the stress out of my day, too.

Q: There have been some pretty big hopes hung on the shoulders of the Challenge Grant projects – like the idea of using these projects to spark a true health movement in Louisiana. Do you think that’s happened?

A: I think so. I feel that the folks doing this work are going to be resources for other people in the future, since, as a requirement of Challenge Grant, we asked our 12 program leaders to come up with ways to sustain their efforts after our funding ends. And don’t forget, this group of twelve is comprised of over 200 organizations across the state. So, I think Challenge Grant has helped create, or at least further, a movement of health and wellness across the state. I see our partners getting involved in other conversations, too — taking other active rolls in their communities, to create healthier living. That’s how we are changing the culture.

Q: BCBSLAF Executive Director Christy Reeves likes to say she wanted us to “move the needle” when it comes to our state’s traditionally terrible health statistics. We’re always near the top of all the worst health lists – obesity rates, heart disease, diabetes, etc. So, now that we’re in year three, what do you think? Are we moving the needle?

A: I would be surprised if we didn’t move the needle. I’m not saying we’ve moved it all the way across the spectrum, since changing a culture takes time. But we’ve been working so hard across the state, it would be baffling if we didn’t make a difference. I see more people involved on state and local levels, looking for more ways to be active and fit. I think Challenge Grant was a big, bold, audacious idea. And I’m thankful our board had the vision to step out in such a major way to drive healthy outcomes for Louisianians.