The secret to healthy living isn't in the doctor's office — it's at the playground, the library and the coffee shop.

That's the idea behind "Healthy Together Willmar," a five-year, $2 million project to build community and improve health in the bustling seat of Kandiyohi County, a growing city of nearly 20,000.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is behind the program, using money from the state's landmark $6.5 billion tobacco-industry settlement to create what it hopes will be a model that can be spread throughout the state.

"Only 20 percent of your health is determined by what happens in the clinic," said Sarah Senseman, community initiatives director at Blue Cross. "If we want to make a healthy Minnesota, we have to focus on the 80 percent out in the community.

"We know that there's a clear connection between our surroundings and our health."

In Willmar, one community focus is on recent demographic changes, including an influx of Latino and Somali residents, many of whom work at Jennie-O Turkey Store's massive processing plant. Willmar's population, about 97 percent white as recently as the 1990 census, is now nearly 30 percent minority members.

The town has seen its share of racial tension, and Blue Cross believes it can make a difference by helping the community come together. Blue Cross held a number of listening sessions in Willmar over the past year, and even put a full-time staff person in the community to gather information and hear the opinions of residents.

"We heard in Willmar that the people at the decisionmaking tables don't always reflect the community of Willmar today," Senseman said. "And so we're investing in leaders of color."

One is Jerson Chelene, a native of Mozambique. He met his wife, a native Minnesotan, when she was a Peace Corps volunteer. They moved to Willmar two years ago.

Now Chelene is one of 10 members of the Willmar Community Table, a sort of steering committee for the overall Healthy Together effort.

His goal, he said, is to inspire people to connect and work together, especially new arrivals who don't always have the cultural knowledge — or the time — to be involved in the community through traditional avenues.

"It's all about immigrants, it's all about people of color," Chelene said. "It's about people who have to work more than 12 hours a day to try to give a good education to their children.

"I see myself in this group of people that have taken life hard to make sure everything goes well with their family."

Connection is key

Through a number of community meetings in the past year, many bringing people together over shared meals, Willmar has identified about 15 specific projects that will get initial funding. They're not what you might expect from a healthy living initiative; there are no step challenges or exercise classes.

Rather, the focus is on forging connection among the people who live in Willmar, in the belief that a connected community is a healthier community.

"We believe you need to feel connected and safe and understood to be able to take care of yourself," said Senseman, adding that a crucial point is that the ideas came from the people of Willmar.

"The whole idea is that we're grounded in the community," she said. "And I think that's how we're going to be successful. Not coming to the community with a solution in hand, but going to the community and saying, 'How can we help you?' "

Among the projects that will be getting underway soon:

• "Aging Wisely," a social group to help combat isolation and depression among seniors.

• A weeklong cultural festival in July to celebrate the independence days of both the United States (July 4) and Somalia (July 1).

• Community dinners hosted by the Goodness Coffee House, a downtown coffee shop, with food from local vendors and a chance for nonnative English speakers to practice their language skills in a casual setting.

• An intergenerational day care center that combines child and senior care under one roof.

Abdirahman Ahmed, director of the Willmar Community Integration Center, is helping plan the July festival. Ahmed, a native of Somalia, said the goal is "to have people share their experiences with one another.

"Sometimes there is a lot of negativity," he said. "To change that, we want to sit with the people so they can connect with us. We just want people to learn."

In creating the Healthy Together program, Blue Cross worked with ChangeX, an international group that helps communities discover ideas from one another. Jen Aspengren, ChangeX director for Minnesota, said a key goal is "density of leadership." A launch event in February drew about 75 people interested in leadership roles, which she called "amazing."

"So, what if we get together in six months and there are 300?" Aspengren said. "Leaders beget leaders. We really see this work as contagious. Someone starts a group and gets their friends involved; suddenly they see what happens when their friends step up.

"We know that folks who are joiners go on to be starters."

'Trusting in it'

Blue Cross hopes to bring its Willmar project to other cities in Minnesota.

"We would love this to be a model for others to follow," Senseman said. "Our intent is to take what we learn and adapt our business to learn more about how to work more effectively and engage with the community."

It's a goal that won't be easily measured in dollars and cents, she acknowledged.

"Lowering health care costs is always part of the equation," she said. "But that's not our [specific] goal and it's not something we can measure in the time of this program. It wasn't designed with the thought, 'What can we do to drive down health care costs?'

"It's, 'What if we worked collaboratively and brought all our resources to bear on one initiative?' We're going with that and trusting in it."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402