The Walking School Bus (WSB) program in West Union has been a giant success.
Since its inception in 2013, the program has grown from approximately 12 to 20 children walking each day to school to anywhere from 60 to 80 children this year. Just last spring, the Walking School Bus went to five days a week, thanks to the countless hours volunteers put into the program.
“The culture change in West Union over the last three years has been tremendous,” said Jessica Wegner, Fayette County Public Health nurse.
Wegner is one of the driving forces behind the Walking School Bus program. Ashley Christensen, Safe Routes to School coordinator for NE Iowa, also helped develop the Walking School Bus program in West Union. In addition, Wegner helped start Whistle Walks for in-town residents.
Wegner recent gave an update to the West Union City Council, where she noted she attended the National Walking Summit Sept. 13-15 in Minneapolis.
Before the conference the public health nurse submitted an abstract of the Walking School Bus program in order to be a member of the four-person panel. Her submission was selected out of many others from across the country to represent rural Walking School Bus programs.
Other on the panel included a representative from a company that helps communities establish a WSB program, a person from the successful urban WSB program in Miami, and a member from National Safe Routes to school, which recently launched a toolkit to help communities start a WSB program.
“I knew it was a big deal to be accepted to present at the Walking Summit, but I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until I got there,” she recalled. “On this panel I was able to represent all nationwide rural walking school busses and provide an example of a successful rural program.
“The audience for the panel was any one from ‘never heard of a WSB’ to ‘I am a SRTS coordinator and need more ideas,” she added.
The National Walking Summit was a three-day conference at which key stakeholders from across the country came to together to help support a walking movement. The conference has been held every two years for the last six years. The first year, approximately 50 people attended the summit; the second time, approximately 150 people attended. This year’s summit had 614 stakeholders attend with more on a waiting list.
“It was a very diverse conference with people from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, state and county public health officials, national and state Department of Transportation officials, city government officials, and walking advocates,” Wegner noted.
Transformation in West Union
West Union has undergone a transformation since the WSB program was started in 2013.
In 2016, the area received an I-WALK micro grant that was partnered with City funds to replace six curb setbacks, including at the corner of Main and Pine Streets. A year later, Wegner partnered with Christensen and Amie Johansen, West Union deputy clerk, to submit an application for a $10,000 Wellmark grant.
The group’s proposal was selected and the City matched the funds. Since late this summer and into the fall, Granger Construction, which submitted the lowest bid, has replaced 27 curb setbacks along the WSB routes. In just to year, the City and Public Health have partnered to make West Union a more walkable community.
Fayette County Public Health instituted “Whistle Walks” this spring in order to get community members more engaged with their physical fitness. Area residents are to go for a walk when they hear the noon and 6 pm whistles.
“The Whistle Walks are great, but our launch didn’t have the most ideal weather,” Wegner said. “It was pretty rainy. We have changed out approach and focused more on the difference events we can offer around the community to get people active. People seem more apt to get out and walk at organized events.”
While the Whistle Walks haven’t been as widely practiced as the organizers would like, Wegner is shifting her focus to creating more free walking events that help jump-start people back into a walking routine.
“We need to take the approach that ‘instead of sitting down during my 15-minute break and looking at Facebook, I am going to walk around the building a couple of times,” Wegner said. “Just that little extra physical activity can make all the difference.”
Source: Chris Deback, Fayette County Union, 9/27/17.