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What makes a healthy community?

Sarah Reid, program director for the Boys and Girls Club of Bainbridge Island, leads a group of youths Monday at their facility in the Aquatic Center. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Sarah Reid, program director for the Boys and Girls Club of Bainbridge Island, leads a group of youths Monday at their facility in the Aquatic Center.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

On an island of plenty, the distance between need and fulfillment is perhaps shorter than it is elsewhere.

But even on bountiful Bainbridge, few would deny that gaps exist for many segments of the population.

They exist between an aging population and a senior center large enough to accommodate its needs. And between affordable housing and those who want to live here, but don’t earn enough money.

Gaps exist even in physical space – between, say, the bustle of the Boys & Girls Club, and children isolated on the rural landscapes that draw many families to Bainbridge.

“In many ways it’s the perfect place to live,” said Jan Lambert, executive director of the Health Housing and Human Services Council, while discussing the plight facing some island parents. “There’s lots of open space. Excellent schools and activities. Jobs nearby.

“But we’ve heard some people say ‘that’s great, but now my kids are stuck on four acres and I’m commuting and working 60 hours a week – how are they supposed to get to all those great activities?’”

Lambert and her colleagues acknowledge that bridging those gaps won’t be easy, but the task would be impossible without first knowing where the gaps are.

That’s why HHHS – tasked with implementing the human services element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan – is conducting a “Healthy Community Checkup.”

Eleven agencies – among them the Bainbridge Boys & Girls Club, Helpline House and the Housing Resources Board – operate under the umbrella of HHHS.

In addition to city funding, those organizations rely on grants and fundraising to support their various human service missions.

HHHS used the results of a similar needs assessment in 2003 to increase its focus in several areas, including youth drug and alcohol abuse, affordable medical and dental care, and better care for children with special needs – an area in which HHHS leaders say the island has made particularly large strides over the past few years.

The 2003 survey found that even though Bainbridge is in general more educated and affluent than much of the county and the state, many community members remain in need.

Back then, one in four Bainbridge households earned less than $35,000 annually, according to the assessment; the report also noted a shift in the demographics, with fewer young children and adults between 25- and 44-years-old living on the island.

This time around, along with identifying service gaps and updating demographic information, HHHS hopes to pin down a more elusive element – a collective definition of what makes a healthy community.

“It’s much different than a traditional needs assessment,” said Elaine VonRosenstiel, chair of the steering committee leading the survey effort. “It’s not just a delineation of deficits – it’s about asking what is well-being.”

To find that out, surveyors are using a variety of methods. Planning for the effort began late last year, with the formation of the steering committee. Information so far has been gleaned from visits to already established groups around the island, from book groups to charitable organizations.

Focus groups, organized by demographic, also have been a resource. Parents, seniors, people who work but don’t live on the island, and children and teens are among the groups with whom HHHS consulted.

HHHS cast an even broader net this week, launching an online survey aimed at anyone with an interest in the Bainbridge community. The survey, which takes between five and 10 minutes to complete, is now available at www.bihhhs.org until April 7.

The information gathered will eventually be used to improve service and help HHHS agencies and the city get a clearer picture of what islanders expect of themselves, their neighbors and the organizations tasked with serving them.

A final report will be presented at a public meeting in May.

The survey is intended to compliment the city’s coming Community Priorities Survey, around which future budget and capital planning will be structured.

To avoid skewing the results of the HHHS survey, those conducting it don’t want to reveal too much about what they’ve learned so far, or whether early results match prevailing assumptions.

Still, Bonnie Snedeker, a longtime islander and the consultant who’s helping administer the survey, said that even if ingrained conceptions about Bainbridge continue to hold true, the point of the outreach is to let the community decide how to measure its own health.

“We don’t want to presume we know what people care about,” Snedeker said. “Things change over time. Nothing stays the same. What we hope to find out is what is essential to people and how to preserve those things.”

So far, Snedeker said, focus groups have spent a great deal of time looking outward. Young people have expressed concern for seniors, who in turn pointed to the needs of young families, or those with special needs, she said.

Just as heartening to surveyors are stories of selflessness, found sometimes in unexpected places.

Lambert told of a couple that was new to the island and fell onto hard times after an injury. Despite being newcomers without long-established contacts, neighbors in the couple’s condominium complex rallied around them, helping prepare their meals and do other household chores.

“Those are the kinds of responses you’d expect for people who have lifelong associations in a community, not someone who’s only lived here a year, “ Lambert said.

“When we heard that, we said, ‘Oh wow, the community is alive and kicking these days.’”

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