Klamath County joins only 39 other counties in the nation to be awarded the Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The award, which comes with a $25,000 check, reflects the strides the county has made to improve the health and well-being of its residents, according to Patty Case, associate professor of family and community health at Oregon State University Extension Service.

In 2012, the community, including OSU, came together to form the Healthy Klamath coalition in response to their poor showing in the RWJ County Health Rankings – 31 out of 33 ranked counties in Oregon. They were tired of the community’s negative image as an unhealthy community, Case said. Community leaders, with the collation leading the charge, elevated the value of a healthy community, economic vitality and how it intersects with quality of life for its citizens. Since the coalition formed tourism has increased, smoking rates have decreased, parks have been enhanced and bike and walking trails added.

One outcome of Healthy Klamath efforts was participation in the Blue Zones Project, a prestigious program that chooses only communities they think are willing and able to step up and make changes. The program is a national organization based on the writings of National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner, who researched some of the longest-lived communities in the world, or Blue Zones.

Every sector of Klamath Falls – schools, health facilities, social service agencies, churches, restaurants and more – had to agree to do their part, Case said. They were required to measure their progress, something the RWJ Foundation prioritized when making their award determinations.

“This prize is an acknowledgement of all the work that has been done over the last 20 years to improve the quality of life in Klamath County,” Case said. “We’ve accomplished what seemed impossible years ago – a change in our culture. We still have more work to do, but we are better equipped than ever.”

~Kym Pokorny