By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
Walking along a crushed gravel pathway among five acres of trees and brush behind Monroe’s Shady Grove Elementary School, Ouachita Parish Police Juror Pat Moore chatted excitedly about this new recreation space in her community.
“This used to be just a dumping ground,” said Moore, referring to the formerly unused patch of land that belonged to the school district. “A place where people dumped their garbage. But we changed all that. Now, it’s a place where kids and their families can come out for a walk. And the 200 houses in the area, this is open to them, too. They’re going to come out and claim it and use it and own it. It’s very exciting for everyone who lives around here.”
Listening carefully and nodding his approval was Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation President Michael Tipton. The stop was part of Tipton’s newly launched “listening and learning tour,” where he promised, as the new head of the foundation, to cross the state in an effort to meet community leaders, government officials and everyday residents. The goal? Put simply — to find out how the Foundation can best use our resources to help neighbors in every corner of the state.
As Tipton explained to us earlier, when first announcing plans for the tour, “The best way to start is to get out in the community and get to know our partners. I want to hear about their experiences, their concerns and their hopes for a better, stronger Louisiana. It’s an important step in understanding how this Foundation can have the maximum impact on the lives of people in our state.”
Tipton’s tour began in July, with stops so far including New Orleans, Alexandria and Houma.
And late last week, he spent two days meeting with a variety of faces in and around the cities of Monroe and West Monroe, including leaders of the Pilots for Patients Program (a volunteer program connecting local pilots with patients who need help flying to distant medical treatment facilities) and representatives from the YMCA, the Ouachita Parish School Board, Ouachita
Parish Police Jury, and government officials, including West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris.
Much of his time was also spent touring a bevy of community enhancements, made possible through the Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant sponsored wellness initiative, Ouachita Well. Over the past three years, the initiative has created miles of new sidewalks, paved walking trails at five elementary schools, park improvements (including covered picnic areas, a community pavilion and playground equipment), a new farmers market and a mobile playground/fitness unit.
Throughout the visit, Titpon heard from those grateful for the partnership the Foundation has provided — and from those hopeful to do even more.
Moore, for example, would love to double the size of that walking path behind Shady Grove Elementary. And maybe add fitness equipment and resting benches along the path, too.
Added Rod Washington, public relations coordinator for the Monroe mayor’s office, “Already, I’ve seen that path heavily used. That’s an area where I used to find broken bottles and litter. But not any more. It just shows me, you never know what type of catalyst can change the mindset of a community.”
Ellis Lewis, president of the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana, talked about their desperate need for a facility, since his program currently has no home base. But as a start, the creation of the Challenge Grant sponsored mobile fitness unit has allowed the Monroe Y to reach more kids than ever. They even reach some elderly folks now, too, using the mobile unit (packed with everything from active toys to weights) to visit homebound seniors at the Monroe Housing Authority and hold fitness classes for them.
“And let me tell you,” Ellis said, “those older people just love working out!”
Ouachita Well Project Director Pamela Barton led a late afternoon meeting of the Ouachita Well Advisory Council, made up of community leaders working together to improve the region’s quality of life. During the meeting, Barton took a moment to tell Tipton what his visit and the Foundation’s help have meant to their community.
“We truly appreciate you being here,” Barton said. “And we are grateful for our partnership with the (BCBSLA) Foundation. We’ve done our best to use every cent that’s come our way to benefit our community.”
“And we appreciate all the work you are doing,” Tipton told the Ouachita Well coalition members gathered around a large conference table in a West Monroe City Hall. “You did the work that needed to be done in your community and we are proud to be partners with you in that work.”
Tipton then added a nod of praise to the coalition: “Coalitions like this one — that’s a powerful thing that Louisiana needs to see more of. I’m happy to say Ouachita got it right.”
Of course, for as much good work already accomplished, there is more to be done. Louisiana still ranks at the bottom, nationally, when it comes to too many bad things — obesity rates, hypertension, diabetes, to name a few. And to that end, Tipton noted before concluding his visit that change is possible, if we work together.