Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, Mayor of Highland Park, explains how she’s creating a culture of health in her community.
The Quality Institute’s Mayors Wellness Campaign (MWC) designated Highland Park a “Healthy Town” last year for activities such as free yoga sessions with the mayor; a walking school bus; and downtown outdoor “living rooms.” How does a community become a MWC “Healthy Town” designee?
I think the most important element for success is for a mayor to be an active participant in the wellness program. For instance, here in Highland Park we are a densely populated community within 1.7 square miles. We have sidewalks, and a downtown. I can walk from the middle of my town to train stations, theaters, and white tablecloth restaurants or BYOB’s. I walk to work everyday, weather permitting. And in spring and summer I lead weekly walks around town. I participate in the free yoga classes for our residents.
You also need a well-led and dedicated group of community volunteer leaders. We reached out to medical professionals, and our Mayor’s Wellness Campaign chairperson is a well-known cardiologist, Dr. Cliff Lacy. So, you need volunteers committed to healthy living and you, as mayor, need to be personally involved.
How does the MWC support your efforts?
We met with Adrian (Diogo) and other Quality Institute staff to brainstorm for ideas. They gave us guidance, tools, and resources—and were very well versed in health quality. We often look to the MWC Toolkit for new programming ideas such as our Walking School Bus and Yoga with the Mayor. The MWC also provided us with Aunt Bertha, which is a social service search engine that connects our residents to local services. The MWC has connected us to nurse volunteers, nutritionists, and local health care systems. The Quality Institute’s MWC is a great resource for mayors looking to start a wellness campaign with their residents.
Highland Park is one of two communities working with the Quality Institute on the Mayors Wellness Campaign PLUS (MWC PLUS) initiative, funded by the Aetna Foundation. Can you tell us how that works in Highland Park?
A good portion of the funding enables us to put together programs for seniors that focus on healthy eating, including diets for people with diabetes. We also have health fairs, stretching Yoga with the Mayor classes, and dance classes. After yoga, the grant enabled us to have speakers from the local hospital come in and address health topics at the end of each session. Topics included diabetes and women’s health. Everything is provided at no cost.
Your community has been creative in coming up with low-to no-cost activities that support health—in all age groups. How do you come up with all these innovative ideas?
We just keep brainstorming. Our PBA has an interesting program. When one of our police officers sees a child riding a scooter or bike with a helmet they get a “ticket” for an ice cream cone or slice of pizza. This rewards their safety practices. We have a “celebrity” chef who comes in and actually works with local restaurants to create healthy menus that we videotape and put on local TV. Right now, we have defibrillators in all public buildings and high traffic stores, such as supermarkets and gyms. We created downtown “living rooms” on busy corners so residents can take a walk downtown and hang out, and on Thursdays in the summer we have free music. You work with your volunteers and listen to everyone’s ideas.
What are some of your future goals for the Mayors Wellness Campaign in Highland Park?
Through community donations and working with a local restaurant run by refugees, we provide a healthy lunch to low-income students on days that school is out. And in our summer camp, we provide lunches to all children so the low-income children don’t stand out. One goal is to expand nutrition and activities to teens, who can be harder to reach. So we’ll continue to work with MWC to promote wellness in various ways for the entire community.