Bridget Craker was hired as the first public health educator for the Green County Public Health Department in early 2020.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic upended Craker’s hometown community and consumed her day-to-day job doing contact tracing, assisting vaccine clinics, and distributing helpful information to her community on how to stay safe.
“As the pandemic started, I felt like it would be a good time to go into public health,” said Craker, who had previously interned with Green County Public Health. “I was really excited to be back in the community I grew up in.”
Craker’s position, which has played a critical role in disseminating public information during a pandemic, was a result of Green County’s participation in UniverCity Year (UCY), which is the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance (UCA). UniverCity is an initiative on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus that connects Wisconsin local governments to university resources to move forward community-identified goals.
In her role, Craker created a communications plan, wrote a monthly newsletter, and managed a blog, social media accounts and the Public Health Department’s website. She has also been involved in a local health coalition, developed a community health improvement plan, and served on several community groups.
Craker has made progress in areas–especially communicating with the public–she identified when she was an intern that could be improved.
“Our regular communications and our diversified outlets that we push out information through has been a tool I’ve tried to work on and something as an intern that I saw would benefit the department,” Craker said.
The Green County Development Corporation (GCDC) championed the partnership with UCY to ignite innovation and create a more sustainable community. Green County’s cities, towns, and villages, including Monroe, Brodhead, Belleville, Browntown, New Glarus, Monticello, and Juda participated.
From economic development and parks to sustainability, housing, transportation, operations, and public health, Green County pursued 50 projects with UW-Madison faculty and students. The partnership yielded results across topic areas, including Public Health.
Public Health Director RoAnn Warden said the public health educator role–Craker’s position–has been the “biggest impact.” She said the UniverCity Year partnership “strengthened” her view on the necessity of an education position within public health.
“Communication was such an integral part of making progress within all of our areas, whether it be breastfeeding, awareness of food secure options,” Warden said. “Being involved solidified my decision to give up a nurse position to get a public health educator position to help us,” Warden said.
Two years after Green County concluded its partnership with UniverCity in 2020, UniverCity staff and UW Extension reconvened many of the original community project leads in March 2022 and hosted a “ripple effects mapping” exercise.
This process involves reflective interviews and “mind mapping,” or creating a visual representation of the links created in connection to the UCY partnership.
“The best result is getting everyone together in the same room to talk about their projects. Most people in the room did not know about other community projects,” former GCDC Executive Director Cara Carper said. “They were very interested, and I believe every person took away an idea or connection to improve their own community.”
Carper said she hadn’t realized the extent that the students’ work had been used to “continue conversations, dig deeper into issues, apply for grants.”
“It was especially interesting that, years later, work is continuing on many of the projects,” Carper said.
For UW-Madison partners, the “ripple effects mapping” exercise emphasized the importance of following the lead of community experts.
“The event reinforced for me that while there is value in bringing new ideas to communities, we must first listen to the members of the community, learn their goals, and try to understand what is most important in order to effectively serve the community,” UCA Advisory Board Member and La Follette School staff member Bonnie MacRitchie said.
In addition to the full time public health educator position, the UniverCity Year partnership also resulted in public health benefits to Green County that included:
- Receiving a $17,000 grant to develop an opioid use data dashboard
- Implementing a mental health navigator position to improve access to mental health resources
- Training and equipping staff to use Narcan to treat community members
- Improving use of a program called Teen Intervene, which aims to reduce and prevent substance use among adolescents, through a student-created video and promotional materials
- Creating a community-powered kitchen
Even if the student reports weren’t used right away, they still have the potential to inform future work. AODA Supervisor Bob Gibson said he recently reviewed a UCY report on binge drinking to inform a presentation.
UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said that projects done with Green County ultimately were “catalysts” for local leaders to make progress on their priorities.
“It became less about the product produced by our students and more about the process of learning from these residents regarding how to move projects forward,” Luter said. “Some of these projects resulted in unexpected directions. For example, a project about senior housing in Brodhead turned into a broader discussion about affordable housing.”
For Gibson, the “real payoff” of working with UCY was the ability to think beyond the immediate public health concerns facing the community.
“When you’re working in the field, you really have to focus on the stuff that’s happening right here in front of your face,” Gibson said. “This is one of the things that is an overall benefit of UniverCity: It gives us an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and not always be reactionary.”
A ‘service to everybody’
Apart from Public Health benefits, Green County community leaders reported impacts across the topic areas identified by the county.
Downtown Brodhead now features a business center located in a converted bank building–a project spearheaded by three community members who were connected through UCY. The project was spurred by a UW Extension-led downtown market analysis report that revealed market gaps.
The group behind the Brodhead Business Center is also working to redevelop a second historic property in the downtown area and helped the city secure a residential housing development.
In the area of sustainability, the Juda School District cut its energy costs by 40% after receiving energy efficiency recommendations, and the Monticello wastewater plant is getting an upgrade. Students also created a conservation plan for a locally historic parcel of 80 acres called the Pearl Island Recreation Corridor that added to ongoing community efforts to restore the area.
Apart from tangible effects of working with UCY, Warden said the partnership emphasized the importance of including youth voices in public health initiatives and aligning with an academic partner. Additionally, she said the UCY projects elevated certain community issues and garnered more partnerships.
Gibson said the spotlight on important community issues and ability to take proactive steps is a benefit to all of Green County.
“If you’ve got somebody that helps you get ahead, be proactive, look at what is the best, that puts you in a better spot and that ultimately is absolutely a service to everybody,” Gibson said.
This story was originally published in the Wisconsin Counties Magazine’s August edition as the “county spotlight. Read the full August edition.