Community Choices chooses to wind down

Local agencies expected to continue nonprofit group's health-related mission

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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It happened to 1984, 2000 and even 2001. Those impossibly futuristic years came and went.

The same thing has happened to a local health-oriented nonprofit group that used to call itself Community Choices 2010. A few years ago the group outlived its original name and became just-plain Community Choices. Now, after two decades of advocating for a healthier future, Community Choices has chosen to call it a day.

"After much soul-searching, we decided that Community Choices has done what it set out to do: to raise awareness and provide a data-driven spotlight on the overall health of our community," said a statement from Marni Storey, Community Choices board chairwoman. "Our closure ends one phase of this work -- and is a call to action to the larger community. It's time now for other organizations to carry these efforts forward, finding ways to continue to improve the health and well-being of Clark County."

Storey said the dedicated experts on the Community Choices board will continue to press public health issues with other nonprofits and governmental agencies. Storey herself is now interim director of the Clark County Public Health Department.

"I think Community Choices has done some really amazing things over the past 20 years," she said. "In some ways, I think we did such a great job that we put ourselves out of a job."

"Community Choices was always an 'upstream' organization, advocating for system changes," said former executive director and board member Barbe West. West now directs the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, at the other end of the health-care spectrum, she said. It provides direct services for people who have fallen through the cracks.

'Real change'

Community Choices was launched in 1993 after a Southwest Washington Health District study assessed the overall well-being of Clark County and came up with plenty of bad news. For instance, half of public school students qualified for federally funded free lunches; the heart disease death rate was higher than in many other communities; rates of cigarette smoking in general and for pregnant women were among the highest in the state; 40 percent of babies in Clark County were born to women living in poverty. Wages were declining; the number of teenagers who were neither working nor attending school was rising.

"It was one of the first community health assessments, and it laid the foundation for forming a nonprofit," said Storey. She ticked off numerous ways Community Choices responded to Clark County's health needs, either directly or indirectly: establishing the SWIFT Dental Clinic for the uninsured in 1998; creating numerous Family Resource Centers in Vancouver schools, providing social-service resources for needy students and families; collecting, analyzing and distributing health and wellness data in seven Community Report Cards; establishing a Food Systems Council to improve access to high-quality food for everyone, and encouraging the growth of community gardening; publishing a healthy lifestyle "Walk Around Guide," and supporting other parks and trails initiatives; and supporting the passage of statewide Initiative 901 in 2005, which prohibited smoking in public places and places of business.

Community Choices 2010 was considered so effective, it was the only non-public health agency in the nation to be awarded a $3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control as part of its "Steps to a Healthier US" campaign, which focused on community-based interventions to prevent maladies such as diabetes, obesity and asthma, as well as underlying risk factors including poor nutrition, tobacco use and physical inactivity.

"We completed the Steps grant and saw a real change in the community," Storey said. After that, she said, Community Choices' board sized up the health-related local landscape and decided that its concerns are in good hands.

"I'm confident this community will pick up the torch so we can continue on the path to a healthier, more vibrant future," said board member John Wiesman, who recently stepped up from Clark County public health director to lead the Washington State Department of Public Health.

The group still has $35,000 in cash reserves, which will be given to Portland-based Northwest Health Foundation, along with a directive that the money be given to an organization dedicated to early learning and early childhood issues in Clark County.

Community Choices' annual reports, county report cards and other information are still available at its website.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.