Colby graduate leads local health initiative

Colby Echo (Ali Naseer)

This past summer, Colby environmental science students Katie Senechal `19 and Julia Nelson ’19 took advantage of a fellowship opportunity at Healthy Northern Kennebec (HNK), a community-led public health group which operates in the twelve towns of the northern county. As part of their program, they mapped the Waterville food environment, and studied local processes regarding the distribution of food, and specifically investigated USDA-designated ‘food deserts,’ such as in the South end of Waterville.

Aside from being an organization that provides fellowship opportunities for Colby students, HNK is a public health initiative in Waterville which originated in 1987 and has become a leader in healthful living programming and a core element of the area’s wellness infrastructure. The group is also now headed by Colby graduate Fran Mullin `84. Beginning as a community public health organization called PATCH, a name derived from ‘Planned Approach to Community Health, the team at HNK has over the years evolved into a central branch of the Prevention Center at MaineGeneral medical center.

In an interview with the Echo, Mullin, who joined the organization in 2014 and now serves as director, said that the group takes a community approach to public health, with a 200 member coalition in the greater Waterville area and frequent collaboration with affiliates in Augusta and other areas in the southern area.

In its primary operating region, the greater Waterville area, Mullin said that the group’s main focuses are nutrition education and the promotion of access to healthy foods, substance use prevention and educating families on their eligibility and potential for benefitting from government programs such as SNAP, or food stamps. To that end, the group has collaborated with schools to integrate health and wellness education into curriculums, ultimately working with thousands of kids in the area.

Mullin emphasized that the group’s mission is encapsulated by its slogan: “health begins where we live, work, and play.” As part of this community approach, HNK facilitates frequent community events open to all, including an event this past summer held on the Colby campus. “Partnerships are really important. We are working with over 200 organizations that are engaged in coming together to solve problems and lift up the community by playing to Waterville’s strength in collaboration,” Mullin said.

Included in those 200 organizations are key players in the area such as the City of Waterville. Mullin added that Waterville is a city in which people have a lot of differences, and part of HNK’s mission is to bridge those differences and unite people in healthy living.

To that end, HNK collaborated with the Alfond Youth Center both through its expansion into health-based initiative and its construction of a greenhouse. Mullin’s group also provided community designed grants to local organizations, such as to fund the construction of gardens to promote both produce availability and environmental awareness among young people.

Mullin explained that Senechal and Nelson embarked on a project called “Mapping the Waterville Food Environment,” in which they performed analysis of food availability and nutritional quality in Waterville. In the South End, for example, they studied how factors such as transportation and grocery store distribution contribute to the issue of “food deserts,” or areas in which residents face difficulty in obtaining nutritious food.

Such research informs and directs the group’s broader goal of encouraging a healthier outlook among Waterville communities. To that end, HNK has historically fostered partnerships with groups such as the Women’s Cancer Initiative and Healthy Waterville, and Mullin explained that the organization is also affiliated with the recently expanded needle exchange program at MaineGeneral’s Center for Healthy Living.

The group, which is organized as a private non-profit (501–3-c) company, receives funding from two federal grants aimed to promote SNAP education and drug free communities. HNK also receives funding from three private foundation grants.

Mullin joked that HNK is hardly a “public” health group anymore, as HNK received funding from the state of Maine as a part of the statewide “Healthy Maine Partnerships” initiative, but this program was discontinued by the state government in 2016. Mullin noted that this cutback forced HNK to phase out programming in vital areas such as tobacco education and the promotion of physical activity.

While she is hopeful that funding for broad health initiatives will be reinstated, Mullin said that the group adapted to the legislation by narrowing their focus on food-based solutions. The group also diversified and expanded their support structure, obtaining community support, foundational grants, and building relationships from the strong public health focused culture in the greater Waterville area.

Mullin, who studied sociology at Colby and obtained an advanced degree Public Administration from the University of Maine, also told the Echo that Colby’s plan to invest in Waterville will bolster HNK’s efforts in organizing programs to solve health-based problems in Waterville. Mullin said that the investment initiatives will bring Colby closer to the local community. She added that Waterville “contains so much untapped potential,” and enabling that potential is a good strategy.

HNK provides numerous opportunities for Colby students to get engaged. Aside from weekly meetings held by the 200-coalition each Wednesday, Colby students can also get involved via fellowship opportunities and joining the healthy Waterville action team, which focuses on action that will increase food access and community connections.

As HNK expands its community-led team, Colby will likely continue to partner with the group to tackle key health issues and promote sustainable strategies for healthy living. Regardless of how these and other partnerships between HNK and local groups evolve, it is certain that the public health of Waterville and the surrounding area stands to benefit.