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Trailnet- Healthy Active Vibrant Communities


Trailnet uses community engagement and community development principles to empower communities to change. The HAVC Initiative was designed with the flexibility to meet communities’ specific needs. The flexibility of the model means that while Trailnet follows a “recipe” for working with communities, the communities themselves determine the actions they will take. Therefore, the initiative is being implemented differently in each community based on assets, needs and interests.  Trailnet serves as a catalyst, bringing together key decision-makers to collectively address obesity with the goal of initiating efforts that will last well beyond Trailnet’s involvement.  The HAVC intervention addresses the root causes of the obesity epidemic by focusing on changing policy, the built environment, and building healthy social networks.

Main Components

There are three broad components of the initiative – community selection, community capacity building, and technical assistance provided to communities. 

Community Selection: Community selection is a distinguishing feature of the HAVC intervention. Rather than using a competitive process, Trailnet worked with the founding partner agencies to identify and select communities. The selection preference criteria for HAVC contained four broad categories: diverse community representation, city commitment, community readiness, and strategic overlap with other programs affiliated with Trailnet or similar agencies. 

The first step in the selection process was the compilation of demographic data for neighborhoods within St. Louis and municipalities in the metro-St. Louis area. Based on Trailnet’s vision for the initiative, selected communities would represent rural, urban, and suburban areas with diverse representation of size, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors.

The second step was to identify communities that met the other three HAVC selection criteria. Trailnet and their founding partners identified several candidates that met a combination of demographic, geographic, and other priority criteria. Staff at Trailnet and the partner organizations then identified the assets and liabilities of each community related to healthy eating and physical activity. Assets listed included active supporting agencies, friendly political climate, popular outdoor events, and presence of bicycle/pedestrian friendly infrastructure. Liabilities listed included limited local organizational capacity, high resident turnover, and safety issues.

In the next step of selection, Trailnet staff met with local leaders and observed community meetings to informally assess readiness. Based on data gathered in all of these steps, Trailnet and the founding partners selected four communities. Trailnet staff then contacted leaders in each community to discuss the initiative and invite the community to participate.  The final step was drafting and executing a Memorandum of Understanding between Trailnet and each partner community.

Community Capacity Building: Capacity building includes working with communities to organize a local task force, presenting to community leadership, conducting formal community readiness and needs assessments, providing opportunities for professional development, and establishing social networks within communities. 

  • Readiness AssessmentsIn the initial stages of the HAVC Initiative, Trailnet staff teamed up with task force members to conduct Community Readiness Assessments using the methodology from Colorado State University’s Community Readiness: A Handbook for Successful Change. Data collected in these assessments are used to inform task force strategies and planning.

  • Kick-off Event and Annual ConveningSoon after community selection, Trailnet hosted a kick-off event, affording an opportunity for all key leaders to meet and exchange ideas and information. This event framed the initiative, provided expert speakers to educate leaders on the root causes of the obesity epidemic and promising approaches to addressing it, and created a forum for communication between the partner communities. Trailnet also hosts an annual convening event, where HAVC members have an opportunity to present their successes and lessons-learned from the previous year, network with each other, brainstorm about visions for future projects, and learn about additional best practices from expert presenters.

  • Organizing a Local Task Force: The community task force is fundamental to the HAVC model and is comprised of key stakeholders and individuals who are active and engaged in their community. The process of identifying and recruiting individuals for the HAVC task forces is ongoing and the kick-off and convening events have served as vehicles to identify additional task force members.In order to sustain task force efforts beyond Trailnet’s involvement in the partner communities, Trailnet recommends each community form a standing local committee to carry on the work of the task force.

  • Task Force Identity: Another key component of capacity building is developing the brand and identity of each task force. Trailnet works with each task force to select a name (e.g. Live Well Ferguson!), create a logo, and create branded materials when they do not already exist. A recognizable brand builds the capacity of each task force as it gives local visibility and credibility to their efforts.

  • Educational and Professional Development: Capacity building includes linking people in HAVC communities with opportunities for educational or professional development (conferences, seminars, classes, professional networks).  For instance, using grant funds from MFH, Trailnet provided financial support for stakeholders in each HAVC community to attend ProWalk-ProBike, a national conference that promotes bicycling and walking.

    In addition, the newly published HAVC Toolkit acts as a go-to manual for task force members at all stages of implementing programs. Its purpose is to inject new ideas into the work of the task forces and other communities in a way that is actionable. The Toolkit has been created to serve key decision-makers, such as policy-makers, design professionals, school districts, and elected officials.

Technical Assistance and Support: Trailnet staff provides targeted technical assistance to each task force as they work to implement projects and policies.  For example, Trailnet provided model policy language and edited draft statements of Complete Streets Policies to help city staff and elected officials in De Soto and Ferguson. In development and infrastructure projects such as Old North St. Louis’s 14th Street Redevelopment, Trailnet often provides technical expertise or connects community members with experts to ensure walkability and bikeability best practices are considered.

Trailnet also facilitates projects that may be slowed by technical or bureaucratic hurdles. For example, staff at Trailnet and members of Get Healthy De Soto met with key staff from the Jefferson County Health Department to encourage the Health Department to permit farmers’ markets in Jefferson County.  Together they were able to draft rules and regulations that addressed the Health Department’s concerns and allowed for the creation of the De Soto Farmer’s Market—the first in Jefferson County, run by Get Healthy De Soto.

Keys to Success 

  • Partnering organization or committed local partner: An organization that is established and recognized acts as a conduit to reach community members through HAVC programs. Partnerships with existing groups provide leverage so that time and resources are not spent unnecessarily on building new relationships or community awareness.  It is important to have a clear Memorandum of Understanding that outlines roles, responsibilities, and process between the outside organization and the community.

  • Task force work is centered around a focus area or focal point: Task force work should center around either a focus area or a focal point.  A focus area is a place with geographic boundaries that residents identify with such as a municipality, school district, or neighborhood.  A focal point can be a school, park, church, or any neighborhood institution or place that residents identify with as a crucial hub of community life.  Focus areas and focal points provide a frame of reference for task force work. Focus areas and focal points are also important because they are linked to groups and institutions, and therefore key relationships, that are crucial for sustaining the work of the task force. 

  • A community “champion” to keep programs moving forward: Trailnet required each partner community to identify a committed local point person in the original Memorandum of Understanding.  These individuals play a pivotal role by providing leadership, by connecting Trailnet to existing community leaders and organizations, and by sharing responsibilities. They are invested in their towns and advocate for their needs and assets.

  • Ongoing recruitment of invested, active community members and leaders to comprise task force: Trailnet staff members are always monitoring communities to find newly active or engaged members.

  • Early successes to keep community members engaged: Following the assessment and planning phases of the project, it is important to identify priority projects that are fairly easy for the task force to accomplish.  Focusing on such ‘low-hanging fruit’ allows the task force to secure some early successes that build task force member confidence and build momentum for the Initiative. One way to gain early success is by dovetailing task force projects with existing projects.

  • Development of an initiative brand in each community: The initiative brand should include a name, e.g. Live Well Ferguson!, and a logo.  Additional materials can be created to enforce and promote the local initiative, including t-shirts, brochures, banners, and posters.  Development of a brand adds momentum to local efforts, strengthens the identity of the task force, and is an important step towards reaching out to residents at-large.

  • Staff members trained in facilitation of community meetings: Mobilizing task forces effectively in a relatively short time requires the ability to create goals and agendas for large groups, foster open discussion and exchange of ideas, and steer these conversations toward productive conclusions.

Barriers to Implementation

  • Organizations with lack of resources or poor budget to support projects: HAVC activities are facilitated by Trailnet, but require support at the local level.

  • Lack of community consensus: Without agreement among community members that healthy active living is a priority, a HAVC Task Force will struggle to identify goals and action steps - let alone implement these effectively.

  • Local culture reflects lack of interest: Lack of interest or concern can be measured in the Community Readiness Assessment. Community members must be engaged and reflect a desire to build healthy eating and active living environments.

  • Absence of local governing body with authority to enact change: When task force work is based on municipal boundaries, the local decision-making body can more readily identify with the task force’s scope of work. Therefore, it can be easier for the task force to secure the buy-in of key decision-makers and access government resources required for lasting change.

  • Local politics - government officials or gatekeepers are not supportive: The progress of HAVC activities -whether they involve events planning, policy adoption, or zoning changes- will be slowed without support of key officials and prominent individuals.