Roanoke College is home to a new Center that supports initiatives to reduce community health inequities across the Roanoke Valley.
Called the Center for Community Health Innovation, core functions of the program—founded in 2018 and directed by Dr. Liz Ackley, the College’s Brian H. Thornhill Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance—include:
- Directing the Roanoke Valley Community Healthy Living Index, an annual assessment that monitors health outcomes, engagement in healthy behaviors, and barriers to healthy living among youth in the City of Roanoke;
- Helping residents and partner organizations collaborate on equitable community development projects and practices;
- Providing grant support and technical assistance to partner organizations
that are seeking strategies to promote a culture of health in the Roanoke Valley;
- Positioning students as agents of change through engagement in service-driven research experiences.
“The Center for Community Health Innovation serves as a neutral space for partners in the government, private, and nonprofit sectors to develop targeted strategies to overcome our community’s challenges to health and equity,” says Ackley, an exercise physiologist who has an interest in studying the interaction between hypokinetic diseases—such as obesity and diabetes—and access to resources that support healthy living. “We provide partners with an array of data to ensure strategies and initiatives are being guided by residents, while also supporting the development of new infrastructure, social services, and policy initiatives through grant support and technical assistance.”
“The Center for Community Health Innovation relates to three major priorities of the College,” Dr. Richard Smith, vice president and dean of the College, said. “It serves members of the Roanoke Valley community, particularly those members most in need of assistance. It provides high quality experiential learning opportunities for our students. It helps students understand how expertise from a variety of academic disciplines (health science, economics, sociology) be used to address important community problems. Roanoke College is proud to support Dr. Ackley and the Center in their work.”
The Center for Community Health Innovation has served as the anchor for Roanoke’s Invest Health Initiative, a national initiative funded by Reinvestment Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which encouraged cross-sector partners from mid-size U.S. cities to advance strategies that support health improvement in low-income neighborhoods.
“This work substantiates the true value of a liberal arts education, as it requires students to develop the soft skills and technical skills necessary to work with partners in a variety of sectors, including residents, police officers, city officials, nonprofit leaders, and private developers.”
Dr. Liz Ackley, director of the Center for Community Health Innovation
The Center works with residents and community partners to identify challenges and develop innovative strategies to enhance healthy living in the Roanoke Valley. An example: Engaging a variety of partners to promote access to healthy, affordable foods in Roanoke’s Melrose-Orange Target Area. For the last several years, the area has been supported by HUD funds through a multi-year commitment from the City of Roanoke to encourage private investment and improve the sustainability of neighborhoods.
A huge experiential benefit for students is engagement with the Roanoke Valley Community Healthy Living Index, an initiative of the Center that positions students as leaders in the Roanoke Valley through service-driven data collection, analysis and dissemination of materials that support local projects. Each year, the Center works with nearly a dozen students from diverse academic backgrounds to translate data into significant, real-world change.
“Through engagement with the Center, students gain real-world exposure to the processes involved in equity-driven, data-informed community development. This work substantiates the true value of a liberal arts education, as it requires students to develop the soft skills and technical skills necessary to work with partners in a variety of sectors, including residents, police officers, city officials, nonprofit leaders, and private developers”, says Ackley.
The Center also is working closely with the City of Roanoke to infuse the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan with policies that promote health and equity. Co-led with Freedom First Credit Union, the Center is working to strengthen community efforts related to health and equity using the law and policy.
“With the establishment of the Center, we look forward to creating a more visible presence in communities across the Roanoke Valley, as we are building the infrastructure necessary to support partners across the region,” says Ackley.