Making an Impact: Healthy and Active Living


Whatcom County is ranked the 5th healthiest county in Washington State for health outcomes and 8th healthiest for health factors according to County Health Rankings. This is great news for our community and it gives us some insights and information about what we can improve on to strengthen Whatcom County residents. Health outcomes are how healthy a county is and health factors are what influences the health of the county. Thanks to our amazing supporters, United Way of Whatcom County is able to focus on specific issues affecting health outcomes and health factors in our community. One of our focus areas in health is supporting healthy and active living to increase quality of life for Whatcom County residents. We are partnering with a variety of groups to help make this possible.

The Whatcom County Health Assessment in 2012 reported that three out of five adults are overweight or obese and over 50% of teens don’t get enough activity or eat a healthy diet. Whatcom County’s physical inactivity (ages 20+) was at a rate of 16% in 2012, in comparison to Washington at 19% and the nation at 21% according to County Health Rankings. This information provides an important key to the solution for residents to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

To provide teens with information and access to a healthy lifestyle, United Way has partnered with the Healthy Lifestyles program through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom. According to the Whatcom County Health Assessment, rural residents of Whatcom County (approximately 44%) are more likely to have convenience stores closer to them than grocery stores, which can encourage the selection of less healthy food choices. But through this program teens and kids throughout the county have access to healthy foods and the education they need to build a long vibrant life.

The Healthy Lifestyles program has several aspects that give youth access to healthier choices: Healthy Habits offers these options through a before school program in the mornings where they serve a nutritious breakfast, Marvelous Meals is a nutrition and meal program that offers a nutritionally balanced meal every day after school and serves between 350-500 youth daily, and Grand Chefs gives access to health education by introducing youth to all aspects of cooking (like following recipes and growing food in the garden on site). There are also two awareness programs for ages 10-15 to help them develop healthy bodies and minds, and make smart choices for life through health-based prevention.

The Maple Alley Inn (MAI) program provides free, home cooked meals multiple times a week in Bellingham. Maple Alley Inn is a United Way funded program through the Opportunity Council and not only does MAI served 14,000 hot meals last year, alone. They also educate attendees by providing information on community resources and health topics. The information and education segment of MAI has saw over 1,400 people visit when health educators were present, which increased from the previous year. In addition, over 700 people recieved information community resources and health topic from social service providers The health outreach topics are customized by the MAI guests based on their suggestions and have included nutrition, dental, vision and mental health resources. They also have community resource information binders available for guests and volunteers to use onsite to help increase health knowledge. This is a great way to spread the word about the importance of health. When individuals are healthy that means there is less stress on our emergency rooms and social services and most importantly strong thriving community members.

Another type of health outreach program that United Way is partnered with is through the Max Higbee Center which provides information and recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Nearly 42% of American adults with disabilities are obese opposed to only 29% of the general population, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The Max Higbee center is decreasing these stats by providing recreation programs for teens and adults with developmental disabilities.

Ryan, who is 20 years old and was born with some significant challenges, has a rare syndrome that causes him to have extremely low muscle tone and curving bones because his muscles are not able to hold his weight.  

But through programs at Max Higbee, “He has lost the equivalent of 80 pounds and now participates in several sports through Special Olympics. Max Higbee has inspired and enabled him to do many things in our community, make friends, grow roots, navigate our streets and public transportation, recreate, but very importantly Max Higbee has allowed Ryan to gain in health and fitness,” said Ryan's mother.

The Max Higbee Center’s Nutrition Education Program has become a large part of their programming. 

“Whether it's providing at least 3 cooking classes a month, encouraging them with our 'Rainbow Curriculum' that says that generally the more colorful your plate is the healthier your meal is, or playing one of the many nutrition games we have at our center, we are always doing our best to provide our members with the education that encourages them to live a healthy lifestyle,” stated Hallie Hemmingsen, the Executive Director of the Max Higbee Center, about the program.

To go even further, Max Higbee staff created 60 cookbooks with over 30 recipes for members to take home so they can practice what they learned.  

Hallie Hemmingsen also explains their “Community Access Program (CAP) is centered around living a healthy lifestyle, whether it be walking up to the Community Food CO-OP or doing a cooking class (always a healthy recipe), working out at the YMCA, gardening and growing natural and delicious veggies, or even walking around the mall. All of these activities require a level of activity that is not only promoting social wellness but physical wellness as well.” 

United Way is excited to partner with the Max Higbee Center on their programs that are building healthier community members. Helping individuals with developmental disabilities live active healthy lives will help them and their families be successful in the other building blocks of a healthy life which are education and income. Ryan’s success impacts not just him, but his family and the entire community.

The Whatcom County Health Assessment saw strong correlations between lower income levels and people reporting poorer health statuses, 41% of residents with an income of $20K or less reported poor health. Which is why United Way is proud to partner with several programs at the local Whatcom Family YMCA. The YMCA’s pledge is “At the Y, no child, family or adult is turned away,” which allows everyone in our county access. One of their United Way funded programs is their Teen Program, which focusses on providing healthy outlets for teens. The program works with at-risk youth and teens from a variety of backgrounds and income levels. In 2012 they were able to serve 2,880 teens, 250 Middle School teens in Y-Adventure School, 207 teens participating in camps, 2,200 teens participated on the rock walls, 130 teens in a new futsal program (a variation of soccer), and 50 teens each month playing dodge ball. When they handed out surveys to their teen participants in the programs, 90% of the surveys returned indicated that the Y’s programs helped them choose to not use drugs. For some of these teens who were heading down a rough road, this program was crucial in providing a healthier lifestyle option. The success of these teens affects all of us in the form of reduced crime rates, higher graduation rates, and of course healthier young adults. This data shows the amazing accomplishments of a more active, healthier life path.

These are just a few examples of our partnerships to support healthy and active living. By working collectively on these issues and helping to encourage healthy habits, our efforts are leading to more beneficial lifestyles to help prevent serious health issues. These efforts make an impact on our community members for life, especially from a young age. We know the research and we have seen the data, supporting access to healthy and active living for Whatcom County residents strengthens our entire community. Thanks to our many supporters we have been able to work with programs like the ones in this article and many more. It takes a variety of groups and individuals to tackle these important issues and to come at it from many different angles. One gift to our Community Impact Fund supports solutions for this issue and several other community-wide issues in Education, Income, and Health.


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