BERLIN — In a unique, two-year pilot program, 45 families from the Berlin-Gorham area have the opportunity to receive a “prescription” to improve their nutrition, physical health and overall well being.
Although it doesn’t have a formal name yet, the initiative has deep roots, growing out of multiple conversations over time among Coos County Family Health Services of Berlin (CCFHS), the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension in Lancaster, and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).
Andrea Muller, who is the AMC’s North Country youth education director, said recently that CCFHS applied for and received a $162,000 grant from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, which will cover the cost of the initiative and also pay for a study of its effectiveness.
Founded on Neil Tillotson’s philosophy of being humble, creative and kind, the fund — named after he and his wife — seeks to strengthen existing institutions, address gaps in services to meet basic needs, support new and emerging leaders, shape public policy, preserve natural, cultural and social assets, and leverage public and private funding, according to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
The Tillotson Fund accepts proposals from communities in northern New Hampshire, including all of Coos County, as well as in nearby Quebec and Vermont.
Families wishing to participate in the “prescription for health” initiative must be from either Berlin or Gorham and must currently be patients of CCFHS, which is coordinating the intake effort. The initiative is targeting children in grades 1-6 who are medically overweight and is open to them, their families and even their siblings, said Muller.
Participating families will get a “prescription” from CCFHS to be more active and to explore and enjoy the outdoors, which is where the AMC comes in, said Muller, while the Cooperative Extension will provide nutrition education to the participants.
Families that continue in the year-long program will be eligible to receive vouchers for free fruits and vegetables from the Berlin IGA supermarket, Muller added.
Up to four times a week, the AMC, working with organizations in both communities, will send an educator to the Berlin-Gorham area to facilitate activities with the goal of helping to change “some of the lifestyle behaviors” of the families, Muller said.
Families that are accepted into the health initiative will be asked to take lifestyle surveys and will be offered confidential assessments, including body-mass index, to track their progress toward healthier living.
The enrollment period for the initiative is now open and Muller hopes that the program will start soon.
Muller said the health initiative is the latest educational outreach from the AMC to its neighboring communities, noting that for several years she has led an academic/recreational program that annually helps 3,000 Coos County youngsters learn more about the flora and fauna in and around their hometowns. That program, however, is geared for middle to high school students, while the health initiative hopes to make a profound impact on younger children.
Muller expects good things from what is tentatively known as the “Berlin-Gorham Wellness Project,” pointing to studies that have repeatedly shown that getting kids outdoors and active will help their cognitive, social and physical development.