inPERSPECTIVE / REC CENTERS: Meeting the Well-Being Needs of the Most Rural Communities

The small community of Bethel, Alaska, is about as remote as it gets. Located 400 miles west of Anchorage and 40 miles off the coast of the Bering Sea, it is only reachable by plane or boat. Many community members do not have modern plumbing and for many, water is delivered to their homes via truck. Many houses are built on stilts due to the tundra and permafrost. And less than 20 miles of roads are paved.

Sourcing effective wellbeing programs can be difficult. Area suicide and substance abuse rates are higher than the national average. And despite its reliance on the Kuskokwim River for the transport of goods, services and subsistence living, the water is often too cold and swift for people to learn how to swim.

But five years ago, after decades of effort, community groups came together to fund and develop an aquatics and fitness center in Bethel. Needless to say, residents were thrilled. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center (YKFC), managed by HealthFitness, now offers a wide variety of wellbeing programs that serve more than 1,500 Bethel residents.

Here are three key lessons learned from developing a rec center in one of the most rural places in the country:

1. Don't overlook meeting the most basic community needs.

Rural residents often lack access to modern amenities. For example, we quickly realized that Bethel residents were using the YKFC for much more than a place to exercise. They were relying on the rec center as a place where they could find a consistent supply of warm water. They used on-site wi-fi—another luxury many residents don't have in their homes. Don't forget that your rec center can provide many often-overlooked modern amenities—and that's a big deal to rural residents. In the case of the YKFC, many residents tell us the rec center has become a second home to them.

2. Go beyond 'water and weights.'

Traditional rec center offerings typically include a mix of swimming and other water-based activities, weights and aerobic and fitness activities. But oftentimes in rural communities, the key is to determine what programming is going to resonate with these unique audiences beyond those "water and weights" activities. At YKFC, for example, a local guitar teacher in Bethel provides lessons to beginners—definitely not a traditional offering, but something many community members expressed interest in, and it gets more at emotional wellbeing through music. Another need that came up as we engaged with the community—classes in women's self-defense. Smart Fit Girls is a programming option that teaches adolescent girls how to love their bodies by embracing their own strength. It's been a big hit so far, and we know it's making a significant difference for these young women. Yes, you should still offer the traditional activities within your rural rec center. But, don't forget to determine how to meet those unique needs of the community they can't get anywhere else.

photo courtesy of ADOBE STOCK

3. Do your homework and get to know the community you're serving.

I know I'm listing this as the third item, but it's crucially important, nonetheless. Embedding yourself in the community you're serving with your rec center and truly understanding their needs and what makes them tick is paramount. Because every rural community is unique, from its culture to its geographic features to its people. What if your rural rec center had a sizable native or culturally diverse population? You'd want to make sure you were developing programming that met their specific needs, resonated with their lifestyle and culture, and accommodated a program schedule that, in the case of Bethel, enables high utilization during fishing or hunting seasons.

Doing your homework also means getting to know the person who initially reached out to you about the rec center (a community leader or government official, for example). Meeting with these people and asking them questions will help shape your early knowledge of this new community you're serving. But make sure you do your due diligence in a broader sense, too. Meet with user groups, special interest groups and community members. Read town council meeting minutes. Yes, this work will be time-consuming, but it will also give you the most organic and authentic information you can get about the community. And, it will serve as the bedrock of your strategic approach for the fitness and recreation center you're trying to promote.

Go Rural

Rural communities are different. They have unique needs. They often include different demographics from the people you're serving in larger, more urban communities. But meeting the wellbeing needs of these people isn't as hard as some make it out to be. You just need to start with a prudent approach rooted in research. Make sure you take the time to do that due diligence. Craft a well-informed strategy that goes beyond "water and weights" programming options and meets basic community needs. Take the time to truly listen to these rural communities, and you will find success. RM



Tim Mertz is a senior director, collegiate & community recreation, at HealthFitness.