Auburn making a concentrated push to get healthy

Volunteer-powered Blue Ribbon Committee triggers programs to improve health, quality-of-life issues

City leaders, partnering agencies and a volunteer force are taking the first steps to make Auburn healthier and more active.

Alarmed by a King County report that showed Auburn as having the highest percentages of health and other quality-of-life problems, Mayor Nancy Backus wanted immediate action.

Backus urgently called on regional partners and representatives from segments of Auburn’s diverse community to find solutions to the underlying issues. The result was the establishment of the Blue Ribbon Committee last year, with its goal of making Auburn “the healthiest city in Washington by 2020.”

The committee – 48 members strong – is strengthened by a clinical partnership agreement with the MultiCare Health System and major stakeholder agreements with: the Auburn School District; Muckleshoot Tribal Nation; Green River College; Valley Cities Behavioral Health; the Auburn Valley YMCA; HealthPoint; and Seattle-King County Public Health – Auburn.

“The stakeholders … are all in agreement that we will work together to improve health in Auburn,” said Barbara Gehrett, vice chair of the committee and a retired internal medicine physician. “Our basic statistics are terrible. … We are having a lot of the problems that are shortening people’s lives. Anything we can do to improve that is really important.”

And Auburn is already feeling the impact of the committee’s work, say its founders and facilitators.

“It’s starting to make a difference,” said Pat Bailey, a longtime nurse and committee co-founder, who volunteers her time for the City in community health efforts. “What’s so good is when people hear about it they want to be involved. … It’s all collaboration, and people are so excited about collaborating. They want to do it. They want to see something done.”

Data from the 2015-2016 King County Community Health Needs Assessment showed Auburn and other parts of South King County as the most negatively-impacted areas for health, housing and economic opportunity measures, and for having a life expectancy of 13 years shorter than in other areas. It indicated as well that Auburn has the highest percentages of behavioral/mental distress, obesity, smoking, diabetes, low income and unemployment.

Furthermore, Auburn is among regional cities confronted by the growing heroin and opioid epidemic.

“How critical is it? People are dying for clinical reasons, and we should correct it,” said Dr. Stephen Anderson, the Blue Ribbon Committee chair and an emergency medicine doctor at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center. “There’s room for change, and we can certainly make improvements.”

Undaunted by the challenge, committee volunteers are listening to the concerns of people and establishing programs and services to help resolve issues. The committee maintains a mission “to optimize the health and well-being of all through education, participation and innovation.”

Points of emphasis

Nine major health issues were identified: prevention and treatment of chronic disease; tobacco prevention and cessation; healthy weight in adults and children; behavioral and mental health, stress, and substance abuse; special populations like homeless, aging, or military; access to health care quality, insurance costs and primary care; maternal child health; cultural diversity, quality care, communications circumstances; and violence and injury prevention.

Of these nine health issues, the committee chose three areas to focus on immediately – behavioral and mental health, substance abuse; maternal and child health; and a healthy weight for adults and children.

After choosing the three health issues to begin plans of improvement, three sub-committees were formed and given the task of identifying projects for each area to begin the journey toward improved health for the community.

From its research, the committee has developed and offered a mental health first aid course for those dealing with common behavioral and mental health issues.

The R.E.A.D.Y. (Real Emergency Aid Depends on You) program was created to help those with basic, practical skills to use in emergency situations and bridge the gap until 911 response arrives. Crisis intervention-trained Auburn Police and the Valley Regional Fire Authority are included in the program to provide information and assurance of their roles in those crises.

Committee leaders said the broad R.E.A.D.Y. program has been presented to nearly 400 people in the community and is available on YouTube at

The committee has also worked to provide customized maternal child health help, such as a successful lactation program with Muckleshoot innovator Valerie Segrest and Public Health’s Delores Baccus called “Muckleshoot First Food – A Breast-Feeding Campaign.” The maternal child program has trained 25 women from the tribe with hopes of reaching more mothers from ethnic groups.

Other successful efforts include a student vaccination program in coordination with the Auburn School District, HealthPoint and MultiCare. The arrangement could become an annual push to get children vaccinated.

The committee has helped usher in “Auburn – Healthier by the Minute” videos on meals on a tight budget that can be seen on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and the City of Auburn website. “Auburn – Healthier by the Minute” activity videos will be released in November.

“I feel we are doing very good work. The community is very excited about the work that’s going on,” Bailey said.

The committee is working without a budget but on the will of its volunteers, with some generous donors and foundation grants aiding nonprofit efforts tied to projects. The program is free-flowing and pragmatic.

“We’re interested in ideas for other projects, and it’s totally open to what the committee wants to do,” Gehrett said. “We’re open to suggestions and ideas people have.”

Committee leaders hope its program can be a blueprint for other cities to follow, regardless of size and resources.

“All you need are heroes in your city to commit,” Anderson said.

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