Hospital, nonprofit launch a community health effort

MIDDLEBURY — Michele Butler Gilbert has spent more than two decades as a personal fitness trainer, helping her Middlebury-area clients adopt effective exercise and dietary habits.
She’s now the motivator-in-chief for all Addison County residents — particularly the young and elderly — to adopt healthy lifestyles aimed at reducing their chances of needing extensive medical care in the future.
As the first-ever Addison County manager of RiseVT, Butler Gilbert will be promoting special events, exercise programs and information sessions designed to get residents off their couches and away from their televisions. It’s part of a larger paradigm shift in health care through which medical centers are placing a premium on keeping their clients healthy, as opposed to the recent past when it was in hospitals’ best financial interests to have full beds.
RiseVT is an independent nonprofit originally launched in Franklin and Grand Isle counties in 2015. Now reaching eight counties, RiseVT’s stated mission is “to make the healthy choice the easy choice” for Vermonters, through successfully engaging “individuals, businesses, schools, community organizations and municipalities in changing practices, policies and infrastructure to make it easier for their residents to make small changes in their health.”
Based at Porter Medical Center, Butler Gilbert will spent the next few months reviewing some of the county’s most successful and effective exercise, nutrition and tobacco/drug prevention programs. She’ll look to replicate and build on those programs. She’ll eventually back some new initiatives, and is gratefully accepting pitches from groups with good ideas.
“RiseVT Addison County” has an annual budget of $25,000. Butler Gilbert can carve out grants of up to $1,500 to the most promising local initiatives that promote healthy lifestyles.
“I want people to be excited about something they do that’s also healthy,” Butler Gilbert said. “I want to inspire people to want to be well.”
Butler Gilbert is looking at state and local data to determine which communities might be in particular need of RiseVT guidance. For example, she’s learned Bridport, Starksboro, Shoreham and Salisbury each have a large percentage of their children who qualify for free and reduced lunch subsidies. Income is often an indicator of a household needing help and advice in making healthy nutrition and exercise choices, Butler Gilbert noted.
“Right now, I’m kind of in an investigative stage,” she explained.
She’s been meeting with members of the community, the Vermont Department of Health “and any kind of community resource that has something to do with wellness.”
One of the easiest programs to promote is also one of the most beneficial, according to Butler Gilbert: Walking.
“We have been talking about walking routes in each community and are talking about a county ‘walking club,’” she said.
But there are several other tried and true exercise ideas that could be replicated in Addison County, Butler Gilbert added. Some communities, for example, have seen great response to a “scavenger hunt” challenge that sends children on mini expeditions to read clues and walk/run from place to place to get rewards.
The non-profit group “Come Alive Outside” has developed a “Winter Passport” program for children that made its debut in Addison County last winter.  The Winter Passport allows participants to collect points by engaging in outdoor activities, such as visiting one of the eight designated parks in Middlebury, going to the Middlebury Farmers Market, participating in Middlebury Winter Fest, building snowmen, skating at the Memorial Sports Center, skiing at the Snow Bowl or Rikert Nordic ski area and playing a game at Middlebury Indoor Tennis.
And RiseVT has been an active supporter the “Safe Routes to School” initiative and of stocking local libraries with snowshoes that residents can borrow along with a book.
Butler Gilbert also stressed the importance of funding fun activities and food for children during the summer, when youngsters tend to be less active and no longer have access to school meals.
“Research has shown that students with food insecurity and under-stimulation fall way behind” when classes start in the fall, Butler Gilbert said.
The Mary Johnson Children’s Center has been doing great work in supplying children with summer food and activities, and Butler Gilbert wants RiseVT to get on board with what the MJCC is doing.
RiseVT also encourages people to think big — such as working with their local politicians to extend walking trails and/or create sidewalks from residential areas to stores. More paths and sidewalks provide more reasons for people to walk, rather than drive to their destinations, Butler Gilbert noted.
Porter Medical Center President Dr. Fred Kniffin is happy to have Butler Gilbert on board and considers her an important part of the hospital’s mission of nurturing a healthy citizenry.
He explained Porter staff members have identified around 600 area residents who are particularly ill and who require frequent care for diabetes, lung disease, chronic heart disease and other major afflictions. Porter will continue to meet those patients’ needs and Kniffin is hoping to at least contain, and ideally reduce, the county’s “very ill” population.
And that’s where RiseVT comes in.
“This stuff takes time,” Kniffin cautioned, “but we’re already bending the curve.”
Anyone seeking more information on RiseVT can log onto addison.risevt.org, or contact Michele Butler Gilbert by calling 388-8804 or emailing [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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