Rural Forward NC Hits the Ground Running as NCFAHP’s Newest Program

calvin-allen-and-brandy-bynumNo day is the same for Calvin Allen and Brandy Bynum, the dynamic forces behind Rural Forward NC, NCFAHP’s newest program.  They could be, and often are, at a county commissioner’s meeting in Halifax County, attending a training in Winston-Salem, and making a stop at the office in Cary to hop on a few conference calls, all within a 36-hour period.

Rural Forward NC is an initiative launched out of Healthy Places North Carolina, (HPNC), a statewide initiative led by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.  The Trust has committed to a 10-year, 100-million-dollar investment in 10-15 Tier 1 counties in North Carolina.  Tier 1 counties are the poorest counties in the state, as designated each year by the NC Department of Commerce.  The 10 years of funding for HPNC is exciting and shows the Trust’s commitment to “being in it for the long haul,” supporting counties in multiple ways.  Unlike a lot of other grant programs where funds are distributed and the grant facilitators step back, Healthy Places North Carolina, now in its 3rd year, is using partnerships to implement and support the initiative all over the state.   Program officers at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust work with community partners to build relationships and networks, and manage the implementation of HPNC initiatives.

Rural Forward NC (RFNC) is a program of the NC Foundation for Advanced Health Programs (NCFAHP), which incubates and supports initiatives that focus on community-centered care.

Calvin Allen is the Director and Brandy Bynum is the Associate Director of the Rural Forward NC.  The two work in tandem, going into communities where the need is and sending whichever of the two has most expertise and/or time available.  But they work as a close-knit team, and together they are helping communities move forward to change for the better and improve health outcomes for their residents.

Rural Forward NC works in designated Tier 1 counties – right now Halifax and Rockingham – to make the efforts of local leaders stronger so that they can make real change in communities.  RFNC does not dictate what changes should be made, but supports with the purpose of training and facilitating change.  The first step to this, Calvin and Brandy say, is to help communities become aware of their issues, prioritize the issues, and decide on what changes are needed.  Training, facilitation, resource management, and policy analysis are all central to what Rural Forward NC provides.

“Part of our job is to ask the questions – and to do it as diplomatically as possible,” Calvin says.  He and Brandy often have their own feelings about what may work and the value of some things over others when attending meetings with a community group or in a one-on-one conversation.  “But, that’s not our place,” Calvin says.   “It’s to help bring voices out, and to provide exploration, and to challenge gently, so that the strongest ideas come out and are explored.”  Both Calvin and Brandy agree that the best ideas often are within the community already; they just need to be heard.

playgroundBoth Calvin and Brandy share a background on youth issues, and a big part of their work at Rural Forward NC focuses on the youth voice as well.  In a lot of rural communities, young people go off to college and never come back.  Brandy says that their team wants youth to go out and then come back, eager to re-invest in their communities.  “But, if we’re not listening to them now, why would they want to do that?” she says.  “Rural Forward has been working with organizations that work to bring young people into conversations about issues – like improving access to recreational facilities and programs – that young people can and should be a part of.”

One example of a specific intervention RFNC has been a part of is around child health in Halifax County, where the childhood obesity rate was 34% in 2012.  The team kept hearing that the central “place” in this issue was schools, where kids spend most of their time.  Brandy contacted experts and spent months studying and asking questions about the schools’ perspective on the issue.  The team then brought together school administrators, parent involvement coordinators, school nutrition, and community voices to talk about the barriers and strengths to addressing childhood obesities in the schools.

After months of conversations, 3 program examples were presented and the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH), an in-school/at-home model, was adopted.  CATCH utilizes tools from visual aids of healthy eating in cafeterias, to incorporating conversations about health foods in math and English classes, to materials for kids to share with their families and implement in their own homes.

This is just one of many interventions in which Rural Forward NC has played a role during the past 3 months. They’ve also worked with helping coach community leaders, facilitating various funding opportunities, and supporting the creation of a comprehensive parks and recreation plan to improve access to programs and facilities, among many, many other projects.

Calvin and Brandy hope to take their work in policy, training, facilitating and convening, and go even a step further.  They want to be able to look at what happens in different counties, seeing what the connections are, and figuring out if there is a strategy that could be useful for multiple places in a community-driven approach.  They recognize that broader strategies can be effective and can save time and money, but they also emphasize the importance of recognizing that every county and every community is different, and sometimes there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

hulahoopingThough Rural Forward NC is primarily focused on health issues and outcomes, they also have the flexibility to work on issues that are one step beyond health, but that have a clear impact on health.  The HPNC team recognized that, if people are healthier but don’t have jobs, or there’s a gang issue, or an overall lack of opportunities, the chances for sustainable health improvements will diminish.  Brandy is quick to share her expertise and passion for juvenile justice and improving education in order to keep kids out of the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Calvin has years of experience in community economic development, specifically rural economic development, and is passionate about finding out how and why communities grow or don’t grow.

Calvin and Brandy also enjoy the chance to work as a team, and say it’s exciting to see how aligned they are on their goals, objectives, and values.  They’ve also embraced their new role as part of the Foundation.  “It’s a group of people that are very dedicated to community, and see the value of having all voices at the table,” Calvin says.  “They see the value of true inclusion.  And to have that span from the community to the governor’s mansion and beyond in terms of influence…that makes working here an amazing experience.”

Rural Forward NC is the newest part of the NCFAHP, and complements the pillars of the NCFAHP through leadership, being community centered in shaping practice, helping to drive innovation, and affecting policy.  “Those underlie our values, how we do our work, as we do our work,” says Calvin.

All in all, it has been a busy first few months for Calvin and Brandy at the Rural Forward NC.  The program currently has three years of funding, and when asked how they’ll know if their work is successful, Calvin answers by focusing back on the communities: “Our success is really based on the success of the counties.  Are they achieving the goals that they’ve set up?  Do they have a vision?  Do they have strategies for achieving that vision?  Are the entities in the community strong, and exhibiting leadership?  Do they have strong leaders?  This is how we measure success.”

And this, like the rest of their work, shows how Calvin and Brandy, while experts in their field, are putting their whole selves into training, facilitating and equipping communities, rather than dictating what they think is best.

Calvin and Brandy are undertaking a huge initiative with Rural Forward.  But their passion and drive, their dozens-of-meetings-a-week schedules and their heart for seeing people and communities succeed, as well as the work they’ve already done in this short time, show that people really can change the world.