Part of her role as Chronic Disease Risk Reduction and Healthy Harvey Coalition coordinator for the county health department means Lorrie Kessler has her hand in a lot of different cookie jars around the Newton and Harvey County communities.
As Healthy Harvey coordinator, Kessler works with 13 different partner coalitions (such as Drug Free Communities, Food and Farm Council, and Walk and Roll Harvey) seeking to improve the health, safety and success of all county residents. Kessler's role as CDRR coordinator, though, keeps her direct, hands-on efforts focused on a select number of those groups with a specific, common goal.
"Chronic disease management and prevention in the community health improvement plan is the majority of what I do," Kessler said. "So, it's looking at making sure that we've got tobacco cessation available and people aren't being exposed to second-hand smoke unwillingly, that we've got the bike plans, the sidewalks, the access to healthy foods. All of that is what I work with the most."
Kessler came to that work through a previous role with the regional prevention center housed at Mirror Inc., where she addressed substance abuse prevention by writing grants, developing and working with community coalitions, such as the one she works with through Healthy Harvey.
Following her work in prevention, Kessler stepped away from that career field for a while to pursue her studies before taking the position with the Harvey County Health Department. Earning a degree in anthropology, Kessler initially thought working in public health was a "weird side step." Considering anthropology is all about studying people — and how much she missed connecting and communicating with others through her work — Kessler admitted a role in public health was a perfect fit.
"A lot of what I did personally in school was mentoring-type stuff. I liked to work with younger kids — like the Upward Bound projects and getting kids into college. Prevention back then, a lot of it really was youth groups and mentoring-type stuff. It was sort of a good fit for me personally even though I didn't think it had anything to do with what I was studying, which is really silly if I think about it," Kessler said. "Seeing how things work, what's not working and where there are gaps that need to be filled in to make things better for people, that's what I like to do."
On top of her work with Healthy Harvey, Kessler is part of the Central Kansas Knitters Guild, which does a number of projects, such as knitting baby hats, scarves and blankets,for charity, while she is also personally involved — outside of work commitments — with Bike Walk Kansas.
While there was no one person or moment in particular that inspired Kessler to get on this career path, there were a number of instances in her life that led her to understand the importance of some of the coalitions she has gotten involved with.
Being raised by a single mom who struggled to make ends meet, Kessler understands the importance of food access being addressed by the Food and Farm Council, while she is also partial to the cause of Walk and Roll Harvey, as she didn't own her first car until she was 20.
"I always had to be the one who would ride my bike to school and walk to school, so I know what it's like to try and get by without a car," Kessler said.
Personally dealing with some of the issues the Healthy Harvey Coalition has identified and is trying to address makes Kessler's role even more of a perfect match.
Recently, Kessler's commitment to so many different community initiatives was recognized as she was presented with a Kansas Prevention Community Leader award by the Kansas Prevention Collaborative. Being totally blown away by the recognition, Kessler was quick to chalk the award up as a win for the entire community, not just herself.
"After I got over my shock, my first reaction was 'this is so awesome,' " Kessler said. "It shows that we're doing what we need to do because Harvey County is getting recognized for this."
Over the years, Kessler has been proud to be a part of a lot of the work that led to that award, like numerous anti-smoking efforts — from the Newton community passing a clean indoor ordinance, before the state even, to the evolution of STAND (a youth-led substance prevention group), which recently brought a T21 ordinance before the Newton City Commission for consideration.
Efforts of Walk and Roll Harvey have also evolved to include the creation of biking/walking plans for multiple county communities, which Kessler said she has been pleased to see physically take hold in those cities.
"I really like seeing that because it's a physical thing on the ground, literally, so that I can see the bike lanes going in," Kessler said. "Watching the number of kids who walk and bike to Chisholm and Slate Creek every day as I'm driving to work is really cool to see how it's grown in the past five years, the number of kids who walk and bike to school."
Work of the coalitions is truly a community effort and Kessler noted that any community residents or employees are more than welcome to attend meetings and get involved by voicing their opinions or taking a more hands-on role. For more information on the Healthy Harvey Coalition, visit harveycounty.com/coalition.