The people of Willmar, Minn., gathered virtually last week to celebrate five years of real togetherness.

The online festivities marked the end of Healthy Together Willmar, a program designed to show that the secret to healthy living isn't only in the doctor's office — it's also at the playground, the library and the coffee shop.

The five-year effort was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, which invested $2 million in health- and community-building activities in the Kandiyohi County city of 20,000 residents.

The idea was to promote connections and build leadership, trust and inclusion throughout the community. Drawing on research showing a strong connection between health and surroundings, Healthy Together Willmar will serve as a model for how community action can help break down barriers to health.

Led by community participants, the project addressed a wide range of social issues, including senior isolation, youth development and early childhood opportunities. The direction was guided by residents who gathered in a variety of forums and events to make suggestions and give feedback.

"From the get-go, my clear responsibility was to listen," said Wendy Foley, a Blue Cross manager who oversaw the effort.

Dr. Craig Samitt, Blue Cross president and CEO, praised the community leadership that flourished during the project.

"We've seen the impact it has made when people who traditionally haven't been in decisionmaking positions are entrusted" with leadership roles, he told the online gathering.

Healthy Together Willmar held more than 100 community events, with thousands of residents engaging in activities ranging from healthy cooking classes to drum circles.

Specific programs included:

• Aging Wisely, with more than 120 seniors participating in get-togethers to address mental, social and spiritual health.

• Be Well, a library-based program that included healthy cooking classes for teens, Zumba and yoga classes, multicultural story time and sensory story time.

• Wings of Hope, which hosted mental health first-aid classes.

• Facilitation and Support for Autism, which assisted more than 100 families, primarily with parents who don't speak English.

• A program at Highland Apartments, home to many disabled, elderly and low-income residents, offering nutrition classes, fitness equipment, community meals, gardening, painting classes and social outings.

"When you plant a seed, you just don't know where it's going to go from there," said Carrie Van Epps, a leader of the Aging Wisely group.

A focus of the effort was building leadership among people of color. The nonwhite share of Willmar's population is about 22% and growing, and it's time they had a bigger voice, said Mayor Marv Calvin, who is white.

"Our diversity is one of our biggest strengths, but that diversity wasn't always celebrated or given equal representation," he said.

"I recognize that the way I make decisions will be different than if I grew up in the communities of our East African or Latino neighbors. While we still have lots of work to do, I am proud of the progress we've made."

Pablo Obregón said the impact of the project has been tremendous.

"A lot of people will think of 2020 as a marker in the history of our world," he said.

"I would say that [Healthy Together Willmar] marks a landmark in the history of our community."

Other communities could benefit from doing similar work, Calvin said: "If you want to know what Minnesota is going to look like in 20 years, look at Willmar today."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402