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Health pros focus on community wellness

Brandi Poellinger, at left, is Program Ambassador at River Falls Area Hospital for Allina's Healthy Communities Partnership initiative. Kali Higgins, at right, is Wellness Care Guide at River Falls Area Hospital for Allina's Healthy Communities Partnership initiative. <i>Debbie Griffin photos</i>

Ambassador links community to health resources

Brandi Poellinger and Kali Higgins started in mid-December as the human engines in River Falls for the Healthy Communities Partnership initiative, a program Allina announced in the fall.

A $500,000 commitment from Allina makes the program possible in 13 rural communities, including River Falls. The initiative is funded through a grant from the George Family Foundation, associated with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing,

The program enables hospitals to work with businesses -- and in the future, individuals -- in the community interested in improving wellness. As the initiative's program ambassador, Poellinger is the person businesses contact in River Falls to begin forming a partnership.

"I'm the contact for employers and the community," Poellinger said last week.

As the HCP ambassador, she'll generally coordinate, market and promote the initiative.

Poellinger said the program asks for a three-year commitment so that screenings can be done and test results reviewed every year.

During a partnership, for example, the company might hold a 'lunch-n-learn' for a group or offer employees one-on-one wellness coaching.

"There will be an initial screening," she said, "and then we'll repeat that screening every year."

The ambassador said each employee and their spouse would receive a screening that includes an online health-risk assessment, measuring a person's blood pressure and body mass and screening the amount of cholesterol and glucose in their blood.

It is also part of Poellinger's job to schedule the mobile unit in which screenings are conducted.

After the workplace numbers are gathered and recorded, an employer can get aggregate-style averages -- not individual information -- that will show them where things stand and reflect any improvement. She explains that the grant-funded initiative is free to users.

By the end of the initiative's three-year startup period when funding ends, it is anticipated that the program will be showing measurable results and become permanent in River Falls.

The ambassador said lots of businesses have neither health insurance nor a workplace wellness plan. She said HCP enables Allina to fill a need in those places since most employers also don't have the expertise or resources to implement health-related programs.

Those are the companies she's targeting first, saying that workplace wellness programs are proven to work. Many times, they encourage people to get exercise during the day on their lunch hour, eliminating the need for them to "make time" before or after work.

She says more proof shows good things come from a healthy workforce: Better productivity, less absenteeism for sick days and improved morale.

She explains that while some of the activities of HCP are outlined, the program is just beginning and will undoubtedly evolve as the community provides feedback. She thinks the initiative will remain broad and general for the first year then become more tailored and customized to the local workforces.

The new ambassador said HCP can help provide resources, answers, motivation and encouragement -- to those who want them. She calls it a unique program with "amazing resources through Allina," including counterparts in other rural areas with whom she can compare notes.

"There are so many barriers," Poellinger said about general health, and it's HCP's goal to tear down as many as possible.

Path to wellness career

Poellinger feels lucky to have a four-mile commute to work. She lives in River Falls with husband Steve and their 3-year-old daughter.

The new ambassador for HCP attended UW-River Falls for three years then transferred to La Crosse to finish a bachelor's degree in community health education. She moved back to River Falls in 1999.

Poellinger worked as the community relations manager at the Osceola Medical Center for two years, taking charge of business development, marketing and community outreach.

She said about the position, "My favorite part of that was the community outreach piece."

She also worked at the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau as a program coordinator. Poellinger said she and fellow HCP employee Kali Higgins are also both taking a well-coaching course.

"We just feel like we're on the cusp of really great things," she said.

Contact Poellinger by e-mail or phone at

New guide helps navigate path

Kali Higgins will be working as the HCP wellness guide, and along with Poellinger, will assist local businesses looking to improve workplace wellness.

Later into the three-year start of HCP, the program will include services for individuals in the community, too.

Higgins said of her duties, "My role is going to be sort of a support role to the employees."

Higgins will conduct informational presentations at businesses, such as a 'lunch-n-learn' sessions and individual coaching. She says the program not only takes and measures a person's blood pressure, body mass, cholesterol and glucose, it also tracks those numbers over the three-year program period.

The wellness care guide says another part of her role will be doing post-assessment counseling with people and connecting them to needed resources.

For example, her first few weeks on the job have including starting a wellness resource guide. While content is still under development, the guide will likely focus on a big three of wellness: Nutrition, physical activity and stress management.

Higgins said so much falls under the health and wellness umbrella, it was necessary to narrow the focus to a few specifics likely to have the biggest impact. She mentions that the program could expand in the future.

In the future, her outreach and interaction efforts may also include a newsletter and/or social media pages.

"For me it's just going to be being accessible to people, listening to people and helping them meet their goals," said Higgins. "We really have to get out there and listen up."

She and partner Poellinger want to do things carefully and make sure program benefits are apparent and measurable. While the grant funds give HCP a three-year start, it must demonstrate need and measurable benefit in order to continue permanently.

Higgins appreciates the "tremendous support" she's received and is excited to see what the team will accomplish.

She calls the local job a dream come true and said, "This is kind of an uncommon opportunity."

Life, lessons, lead to health

Higgins lives in Stillwater with husband Jay. Both their parents are from that area, too.

She started college life in St. Olaf delving more deeply into English, Spanish and stories after travel abroad. She took a job in the corporate offices of a fitness chain.

"When I was there," she said, "I realized I really wanted to be in health and wellness."

She found a holistic health studies program at St. Catherine's in the Twin Cities and earned a master's degree. She is also studying to become a prenatal yoga instructor and wellness coach.

Higgins recognizes many different kinds of transformations in life, including health improvements. She considers herself part of people's support team for change(s) related to better wellness but knows the decisions and desire lie with the individual.

"We can try to coach and help that but it's really in that person," she said, "and in the end, they do it."

Higgins' experience also includes time teaching community education programs, as a birth doula and working with Allina doing an on-site practicum during its Backyard Initiative.

Also interested in green technology, Higgins was working at the River Falls branch of the St. Paul-based company, Energy Prints, when she learned of the more health-focused job with Allina in another city. When she checked for that position, she saw the job in River Falls.

She's thankful for both of her local career opportunities and says she's looking forward to being busy and meeting people.

Contact Higgins by e-mail or phone at or at 715-307-6023.