The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) received a $32.3 million anonymous gift to fund a health-and-wellness initiative in Fort Smith and surrounding areas.
“This tremendous, anonymous gift will help ACHE continue to fulfill its mission at a much faster pace,” CEO Kyle Parker said. “We are not just studying problems; we are creating solutions.”
Plans are in place for how this donation will be used at ACHE. Renovations are already underway on the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center (RI/HWC) in Fort Smith and should be completed by December 2022. The updated facility will offer health-professions and scientific-community students opportunities in a variety of disciplines while allowing other institutions to take part in inter-professional education combining the arts with clinical intervention and discovery research to promote health and wellness in the community.
Parker said the first floor of the center comprising more than 60,000 square feet and another 15,000 square feet outside will be converted into a new health-and-wellness center that will house a community art gallery and more. It also will include space for art instruction for students and the community; an artist-in-residence program; applied arts where occupational- and physical-therapy students can create and produce adaptive devices using a 3-D printer; a ceramics lab with kiln to improve hand and eye coordination and art creation; and a performing arts theatre for productions and dance.
“Addressing nutrition, the space will include multiple cooking stations within a community kitchen, a baking kitchen and a culinary kitchen,” Parker said. “There will be the ACHE Fit Lab for exercise and a clinical trials clinic. Outside will feature the Art Walk, Community Classroom and food gardens. There will also be a multi-use trail system that surrounds a small lake; three to four miles of a green XC flow trails for mountain bikes, a one-mile ADA accessible trail, a children’s bike park and over 1000 square feet of a tree canopy trail to view the beautiful scenery, all designed to improve physical well-being.”
Aiming to cultivate a culture of health, ACHE will concentrate on promoting health and wellness around the region.
“Since 1990, our state has ranked in the bottom five states for health outcomes including health disparities and chronic disease,” Elizabeth McClain, PhD, Chief Wellness Officer at ACHE, said. “We have an amazing opportunity to promote healthy lifestyles through collaborative partnerships, civic engagement supporting health equity. By making health a shared value, we can prioritize and promote the connections that create and sustain improved health outcomes resulting in communities that thrive.”
Fort Smith was labeled a “food desert” in 2019 by the Urban Institute. “Food desert” describes communities where lower income residents must travel distances greater than a mile for healthy food options. Studies show that lack of access to dairy, meats and other produce increases food insecurity placing residents at greater health risks.
“Approximately 90 percent of our nation’s spending, or $3.8 trillion, is used in annual health-care expenditures to treat chronic disease and mental health conditions. It is essential that we build a foundation of health, directed at disease and illness prevention at a younger age,” McCain said.
A partnership with Brightwater, an academic department of NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC), was created to develop K-12 art-integrated curriculums focusing on healthy nutrition. Brightwater provides holistic programming for changing the idea of culinary education and nutrition. ACHE and Brightwater have been collaborating on plans and methods for a pilot study providing teacher training sessions, funding classroom equipment and curriculum involving the impact of nutrition through gardening and cooking.
Marshall Shafkowitz, executive director for Brightwater, said the partnership will impact the health and nutrition of future generations.
“We plan to do this by developing lessons with the Fort Smith Public Schools that incorporate food as the medium to teach STEAM while meeting the state standards. The goal is to introduce children in kindergarten and first grade to fresh ingredients, some grown in their own classrooms with Tower Gardens, that improves their academic and health outcomes while providing the students with the knowledge to make healthier choices,” he said.
ACHE also is working with United Way of Fort Smith and Antioch for Youth & Family to continue developing new programs that provide more options for nutrition education and healthy cooking options that are inclusive to the entire community. Outdoor community gardens are included in the design process of RI/HWC for the PEAK Innovations Center. This addition will help strengthen the community gardens organized by Antioch for Youth & Family.
To promote mobility and active lifestyles, ACHE will use Fort Smith Mayor George McGill’s wellness initiatives to increase access and mobility growth. Area schools and United Way agencies will also be used to develop additional youth programs promoting physical activity.
“I truly believe if a city or community wants to be attractive for economic growth and development it must display a strong passion for health and wellness,” McGill said. “The initiative started by Arkansas Colleges of Health Education to develop a new health and wellness research center is evidence that Fort Smith is determined to become a strong, healthy community.
“When we make decisions and take actions like these, we become very attractive to industry and families. It says to those who are interested in quality of life that Fort Smith is the place to be. We not only practice good health and wellness, but we are on the cutting edge for health and wellness research that could change the health standard of this nation.”
The ACHE RI/HWC mobility lab will have a focus on “physical-activity-as-medicine” research initiatives for all ages and ability levels. ACHE is collaborating with K-12 schools and organizations to increase opportunities for physical activities with youth. ACHE will provide access to exercise/adaptive exercise equipment and programming to promote changes in quality of life. Mental health will also play a factor in studies conducted on changing health habits.
Arts will play a major role in the ACHE RI/HWC project. Visual arts, fiber arts and ceramics will give health professionals, students and the community the chance to combine creativity with daily living, mobility, health and wellness or challenges within the community. This component of the project will involve resident and regional artists teaching, lecturing and showcasing artwork in the RI/HWC art spaces. The art will be considered as areas of focus for research projects developed as well as drive creativity discovery, scientific advancement and diversity in available healthcare services.
“We started putting the pieces of this project together in 2017,” Parker said. “Finding the right partners is always paramount to success. This is a transformational moment for Fort Smith, the surrounding region, and with empirical proof of success, the entire state. It is transformational in education for our children, transformational for this region, and transformational in creating a healthier living environment for everyone. None of this could have happened without the incredible anonymous gift of a family that loves this community and is making a difference in all of our lives.”