Grassroots group grows support in Strathmore

A dietician. A marathoner. A trisport advocate. A community activist.

Back in 2007, these four people, and a few others, found themselves in one room. Despite their diverse interests, they were all asking the same question—“What can we do to improve the health of our town?”

That town is Strathmore, located about 50 kilometres east of the City of Calgary. And that passionate grassroots group soon had an official title—HEAL Our Future (with HEAL standing for Healthy Eating and Active Living).

“We had some initial frustrations, but I really believe if you start small and work hard, you can make things happen,” says Robert Breitwieser, the community activist in those initial meetings who now holds the title of archivist and media spokesperson for HEAL.

And make things happen they did. In the years since that first gathering, the grassroots group has partnered with local organizations to host everything from winter walk days to sports equipment swaps.

In 2019, they received a Communities ChooseWell award for Creating Supportive Environments. This award celebrated HEAL’s recent work, which has focused on cancer prevention initiatives.

According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), 16,000 Albertans are diagnosed with cancer every year, making this preventative work crucial to the health of the province. In 2016, AHS asked HEAL to participate in a pilot project to study and implement cancer prevention initiatives in rural communities. HEAL agreed, and after careful research, landed on three ways to prevent cancer in Strathmore—food security, sun protection and physical activity.

HEAL partnered with another local group, Communities in Bloom Strathmore, to promote gardening initiatives for students from kindergarten to Grade 9. They installed garden boxes in school yards, and Robert now visits the schools to educate students on food security and composting—even earning him an affectionate nickname.

“If I meet the kids downtown they always say, ‘Hi garden guy! How are you?’ ” laughs Robert.

To promote sun protection, HEAL handed out sunscreen samples and information on protecting your skin at town events. They also bought two portable sunscreen stands, setting them up at parks and major events so residents could access free sunscreen. They even asked the library to keep the portable dispensers, and now anyone hosting an event can “check out” the stands.

For the third focus of HEAL’s cancer prevention measures, physical activity, the group continued to find ways to get people walking. They partnered with town administration to build and maintain more pathways and sidewalks to connect downtown, schools and parks. Strathmore now has over 50 kilometres of connected trails and pathways and over 40 wayfinding signs to help people navigate on bike or foot.

With each of these projects, HEAL’s goal wasn’t just to provide nutritious food or improved trails, but to make active lifestyles accessible, understandable and attractive to residents.

And there’s evidence this goal is being met. Through the years, Robert says he’s noticed the public and town taking ownership of many of the initiatives HEAL first started.

“Once we get a project up and running, somebody else comes along and takes it over. We can pass it off to them and we can move on to something else. That’s been one of the real joys,” he explains.

When the group received the ChooseWell award this past fall, Robert went back to town council and presented the award at a public meeting. This gesture recognized residents’ and elected officials’ roles in creating a healthy environment.

“This is not my award, this is an award for the entire Town of Strathmore—for the work people are doing to make this community a healthier place.”