Spotlight: The Montachusett Opportunity Council

We are pleased to offer the fourth installment of our Spotlight series to highlight MPHA partners across the state who are changing lives and communities to improve health and advance health equity. Previously we showcased the work of Partners for a Healthier Community in Springfield, the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council, and the Greater Lowell Health Alliance.

This month we interviewed Mary Giannetti, Director of Nutrition/Wellness and Energy/Housing Services at the Montachusett Opportunity Council (MOC) and a member of the Act FRESH Coalition. 

Mary Giannetti

MPHA: MOC is one of 24 Community Action Agencies (CAA) in Massachusetts. What is a Community Action Agency?

MOC:  Community Action Agencies – or CAA’s – are private, non-profit human service and advocacy organizations that were established by Congress more than 30 years ago to fight poverty. As one of the 24 CAAs in Massachusetts, we provide a range of services to help individuals and families progress toward self-sufficiency. Typical services include: homelessness prevention; fuel assistance; WIC; health and wellness services; Head Start and early education and care programs; senior services and youth programs; workforce development, job training, and education; access to, and training in, information technology; asset formation, protection, and retention.

MPHA:  What are a few specific ways that the Montachusett Opportunity Council advances its tag line to, “Reduce Poverty One Family at a Time”?

MOC:  Over the past several years MOC has been the convener in a number of multi-partner/multi-sector initiatives to address the root causes of poverty. In 2010, after several episodes of violence in one of Fitchburg’s Housing Authority neighborhoods, MOC, Fitchburg’s Mayor, city department heads, and approximately 15 other health, social service, and educational institutions, came together with the intention of flooding Fitchburg neighborhoods with resources to support residents while instilling a sense of pride of place which, in turn, would reduce violence. MOC has played a key coordinating role in these neighborhoods.  As a result, MOC has opened a Homework Center for neighborhood youth which operates year-round. Furthermore, MOC has taken a leadership role in revitalizing a formerly unused, trash strewn, poison ivy-infested field on this property into a multi-use green space for residents of all ages.

In 2013, as a leading member of the North Central MA Youth Employment Collaborative, MOC played a key role in significantly expanding summer employment opportunities for young adults across the region. This was particularly challenging in an economy experiencing an all time low for youth employment opportunities since World War II. Through the Jobs4Youth initiative, 72 adolescents secured part-time employment at local organizations and were provide with job readiness skills and coaching during the months of July and August. Forty of the youth were supported with funds through the state’s Summer YouthWorks program and 32 were funded through money secured from local banks, institutions of higher education, MOC’s own fundraising efforts, and other community partners. The teens were able to work in a variety of roles and performed jobs in a wide-variety of areas, including: clerical, grounds/maintenance, child care, website maintenance, meal prep, food pantry staff, and park/camp staff.

IMG_1079Angel finds a cucumber

MPHA: Fun ‘n FITchburg is a program created by MOC to promote healthy eating and active living and is an active member of the MPHA-led Act FRESH Coalition. Why and how did MOC begin Fun’N FITchburg?

MOC:  Fun ‘n Fitchburg (FNF) is the product of another collaborative effort between MOC and the City of Fitchburg. This initiative began in response to the high rates of obesity among Fitchburg youth. MOC and the City had been working on an employee wellness initiative focused on increasing opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating, so expanding this work to the community was a natural fit. With funding from the MA Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Mass in Motion program and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Fun ‘n FITchburg partnership has grown from 20 key leaders in 2009, to a vibrant and committed team of more than 85 individuals, including: professionals, policy makers, residents, and youth. Expanding efforts to in 2011, MOC, the Community Health Center, and Fitchburg area schools received a CDC Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration (CORD) grant from DPH in which Fitchburg is an intervention community. FNF focuses on strategies that change policies, systems, and environments that support healthy eating and active living. Some of FNF accomplishments include:

  • A Healthy Equity Analysis of Fitchburg’s policies and ordinances specific to healthy eating and active living with key recommendations by the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission.
  • A Health Impact Assessment of three potential strategies for city-owned vacant lots that will increase opportunities for healthy eating and active living.
  • A Board of Health and district school policy to require park vendors and community groups to offer at least one healthy food and beverage option.
  • A Pedestrian Generator Checklist and Complete Streets administrative policy to support safer walking and bicycling, with an added focus on areas near parks and schools.
  • A policy to ensure WIC, senior farmers’ market coupons, and SNAP are accepted at farmers’ markets.
  • An “Adopt-a-Park” program with 16 city parks cared for by residents/community groups and parks deemed as “Safe Zones.”
  • Established “Parks Days,” a summer program that promotes the City’s parks to increase usage and awareness of them. These events draws over 450 of the city’s youth.
  • 37 community garden plots, with special emphasis on public housing communities and maintained through a formal community garden agreement adopted by the Housing Authority.

Mark Fenton & Fitchburg Walk Audit

We’ve also been able to create a sustainable model for youth engagement. Integral to all phases of our project and a cornerstone of program sustainability, we encourage youth participation through MOC’s Youth Peer Educators. Youth, one of our target audiences, were directly immersed in FNF and provided a voice equal to policy makers and professionals. They engaged high level leaders locally and at the state level through presentations and education around FNF. Multiple sectors have now engaged the youth voice in their work and continue this model moving forward as they have learned the value of youth’s perspective in their work.

Additionally, with funding from DPH and the MA Council on Aging, we’ve been able to focus on seniors in our healthy community design strategies. A “senior champion” now sits on our steering committee, and older adults participate in the Fun ‘n FITchburg strategic planning.

Peer Educators address Fitchburg Parks & Recreation Board 007Josie_MiM Senior

MPHA: In 2009 the BMIs for Fitchburg’s school children was the second highest in the state and has since dropped 10%. What will FNF be doing to help continue this encouraging trend?

MOC: Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done but there is a great deal of momentum to continue the positive trend. Fun ‘n FITchburg is embedded in all sectors of the community where our families live, play, go to school, and seek health care. MOC and the Fitchburg Board of Health will continue to coordinate synergistic activities in each of these sectors to promote environmental and policy changes that support active living and healthy eating. This coordinated approach is a key to success. The strategies that FNF will continue to work on include: transforming nuisance vacant lots into community assets and potential space for community gardens; implementing complete streets policy, making the city more walkable and bikable; focusing on increasing healthy selections with vendors and at food pantry’s; creation of Natural Play Space at the Fitchburg Housing Authority family housing complex.

MPHA: Tell us about the Working Cities grant the City of Fitchburg recently received from the Federal Reserve. What’s “eCAREnomics?

MOC:    In March 2014, MOC and partners (i.e., the City of Fitchburg, the Twin Cities CDC and Fitchburg State University) received $400,000 through the Boston Federal Reserve Bank’s Working Cities Challenge Grant program to improve the City’s physical and economic health by systematically addressing the root socio-economic factors that put families and communities at-risk. Fitchburg’s e-CAREnomics focuses on North of Main, one of the City’s most impoverished neighborhoods, as a critical starting point for broader city-wide change. It brings together a cross sector collaboration of diverse partners with unique expertise and perspective to build social capital where it is needed most. Building upon the the successful place based work of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation and the “Collective Impact” approach of Fun ‘n FITchburg, stakeholders will engage in an assessment of local assets and barriers related to the focus areas of: Health, Education, Public Safety, Economic Development, Housing and Community Engagement. Results of the assessment will inform the development and implementation of a Neighborhood Action Plan including specific strategies to make North of Main a place where people choose to live, work and invest.

MPHA: If someone has never been to Fitchburg before, what’s the first place you encourage him/her to visit?

MOC: Fitchburg has a number parks and trails a first-time visitor should see—Cogshall Park, Flat Rock Sanctuary, and the newly built Gateway and River Front Parks. Also, the Fitchburg Art Museum is fabulous. And we have a great 4th of July parade combined with our “Civic Days” coming up! But what truly gets you about Fitchburg are the people and the rich history of collaboration and cultural diversity.

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