Building A Culture of Health in Garrett County

Garrett County is receiving national recognition for its health-improvement efforts. The county is one of eight 2017 winners of the Culture of Health Prize awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest public health philanthropy.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,

A Community Holding Hands to Bridge its Divide

Up at Deep Creek Lake, in the heart of the county, multimillion-dollar homes and fast-multiplying condos fuel a more than $300 million tourism economy. Meanwhile, many county residents work seasonal and low-wage jobs at tourist-friendly restaurants, hotels and resorts, and the county faces a child-poverty rate of 19 percent, compared with 14 percent of all Maryland children. Dependent on industries such as health care, light manufacturing and farming, in addition to tourism, Garrett County’s median household income is about two-thirds the state average.

To address the challenges and bridge economic, cultural and health divides, Garrett County has capitalized on a deep-rooted strength: Everyone seems to know everyone, and neighbors care for each other and band together. That community spirit has brought about a robust, data-driven health planning process focused on reducing disparities in housing, education, employment, income and health care so that all residents can thrive. This small town spread across farmland and country roads has found a way to enable every high school graduate to attend community college for free and has raised $4.9 million to build a cancer center in its county seat.

The county’s health planners have drawn in the most vulnerable residents — including those struggling with intergenerational poverty, chronic disease, and housing instability — county leadership, and health care and social services partners. They are encouraging participation and tracking progress using an online planning tool, The multifaceted collaborative effort has earned the county a 2017 Culture of Health Prize.

“One of the good things about being small is we communicate very effectively,” says County Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh. “A lot of sharing goes on.”

Education, Opportunity, and a ‘Community of Caring’

When Garrett County, Maryland, native Shelley Argabrite says, “This is truly a community of caring,” she’s speaking from experience. Like many, due to unfortunate circumstances she experienced poverty as a single parent. Her resilience combined with assistance from the people in service agencies in the county helped her navigate the difficult situation, providing her family with, among other things, healthy food and a homebuyer’s grant that helped them secure a more sustainable future.

Now she’s paying it forward. As the strategic health planner at Garrett County Health Department, she’s working to address the county’s most pressing health needs, in part by gathering input from those who struggle as she once did.

That “leave no one behind” attitude pervades in Garrett County and has led to creative solutions aimed at expanding opportunities available to residents. When Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh, then the county’s director of economic development, proposed starting four scholarships at Garrett College about a decade ago, the county’s Board of Commissioners rebuffed him. But not for long.

“They said, ‘That’s going to make four people happy and a lot of people mad,’” says Hinebaugh, a county commissioner since 2014. “So I did the math. If we offered free scholarships to all for two years of community college, it would be one cent on our tax rate.”

Hinebaugh’s eureka moment generated a scholarship program that enables Garrett County residents with a high school degree or GED to attend the college for free if they study full time and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average. The program will soon expand to include non-traditional age students.

“It was absolutely instrumental to me,” says John Corbin, public affairs specialist at the Garrett County Health Department, of his scholarship, which meant he spent only $15 on a parking permit during his two years at Garrett College and graduated debt-free. “[Community college] is basically unaffordable to a lot of residents without the scholarship.”

If education is at the center of opportunity building in Garrett County — 1 in 5 residents has a bachelor’s degree or higher — so too is chipping away at poverty. The county’s 2-G, or two-generation program, which aims to improve outcomes for children and economic security for families, has been lauded by many, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. This year, he moved to create a commission that will study the approach as a model for the state.

“At the heart of the two-generation approach is the idea that you work with children and families simultaneously, but you do it in a way where your services are really integrated,” says Duane Yoder, president of Garrett County Community Action, a poverty reduction nonprofit. Families work with staff to develop a “pathway plan” that includes at least one goal related to education, employment or financial management.

To leave poverty behind, families need places to live and ways to get to work. So Garrett County Community Action and its public and private partners have developed 700 affordable, low-income, mixed-income and workforce housing units. And the county’s Wheels to Work program helps families afford a used car, since Garrett, like many rural communities, lacks traditional public transit.

In every endeavor, the people of Garrett County are important partners.

“We work as a team with families,” says Barbara Miller, vice president for family economic security at Garrett County Community Action. “We listen to what they feel they need in their lives.”

To read more about Garrett County’s efforts to to ensure all residents have the opportunity to live healthier lives, visit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s website.