Community-­‐led wellness project in Petersburg

Petersburg, Virginia, ranks low in overall health outcomes compared to other localities in the state — it’s at 131 out of 133. Its adult obesity rate of 36 percent outweighs both the national rate of 35 percent and the statewide rate of 28 percent.

Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, is the program director for and principal investigator on the Petersburg Wellness Engagement Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The project takes a community-based participatory research approach, meaning the Petersburg community is involved, in a meaningful way, in all aspects of the project. 

“Residents and other stakeholders were excited when we approached them and that we were there to listen,” says Mosavel. “We had many community meetings prior to submitting the grant application, and that’s where the community identified obesity as a health concern.’”

The project includes wellness ambassadors — residents employed part time by the project who receive substantial training so they can play dual roles as both community health advocates and community researchers. 

“This model of engagement builds capacity among residents and also a sense of ownership about the health issue,” says Mosavel. “These are not outside researchers but Petersburg residents, committed to the issue.”

The project also trained house chat leaders, these are residents who invited members of their social network to come to their home for informal discussions about obesity and community based solutions. House chat leaders also received funds to provide healthy meals to their guests as they talked to members in their social network about their challenges and about Petersburg-­‐relevant solutions for an intervention. 

The project also engaged in asset mapping, where 18 trained high school youth walked hundreds of miles in the community and noted all community assets related to physical activity and food choices.

With all this information, the Petersburg Wellness Engagement Project has begun its pilot intervention, which includes partnering with the YMCA and the Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide physical activities as well as training to help residents prepare healthy foods. Residents can enroll at no cost and receive access

to a wellness ambassador for social support, as well as various tools such as a set of scales and a pedometer that can help them with their health and wellness journey.

The $700,000 NIH grant was a three-­‐year needs assessment award that ran until November 2015 and recently received a one-­‐year extension. But Mosavel and the community decided long ago, even before the grant was awarded, that this needed to be bigger than one grant and one project. 

“Residents can mistrust researchers, even when those researchers have very good intentions, because we collect our data and then we leave,” says Mosavel. “There was such momentum and interest at the initial community meetings that we decided to develop something more sustainable than a grant.”

The result is the Petersburg Wellness Consortium, which was founded in fall 2013 and is a volunteer-­‐run organization. The PWC has started initiatives like the Million Mile Challenge, which helped form 10 new walking groups in the city, who have so far recorded more than 750,000 miles of physical activity. Recently, the PWC has been funded by two foundations. The overall goal of the PWC is to establish a culture of health and wellness in Petersburg within the context of addressing the social determinants of health.

“With the planning grant, all we had to do to demonstrate success was to engage the community so that we could develop and implement a pilot intervention to reduce obesity,” says Mosavel. “But we did so much more than that. We built trust and we built a community coalition that can be sustainable.”