When Meghan DeBolt resigned as Walla Walla County’s public health director earlier this month, she walked through a different doorway to continue working in health.
DeBolt had already been excited about her next step, she said at her home Wednesday, and the timing was right to go a different direction in serving the Walla Walla Valley.
DeBolt has been chosen as executive director of the first Blue Zones Project to come to Washington state, and the organization’s first foot forward after being purchased earlier this year by Adventist Health, a name familiar to many here.
Blue Zones Project, a nonprofit health organization, has been looking at Walla Walla for some time now. In January of 2019, the group visited the Valley to assess the community as a potential base.
For about a decade, communities in multiple states have paid Blue Zones Project for longevity-focused public health policy guidelines. And nearly two years ago city, health and nonprofit leaders in this area wanted to become the first place in Washington to pursue the project.
Walla Walla County, Walla Walla University, Adventist Health and the cities of Walla Walla and College Place collectively chipped in for the $50,000 tab to take part in a Blue Zones site visit, where the organization met with focus groups to assess what the area needs in order to improve community health, DeBolt said.
The Blue Zones Project is based on the writings of Dan Buettner, an author, entrepreneur and world record-holding endurance cyclist, who studied five places around the world with a particularly high concentration of centenarians for a series of National Geographic stories.
The Blue Zones Project attempts to replicate in American communities the life-lengthening factors Buettner identified in those five places.
One such place is Sardinia, a Mediterranean island community and one of the original blue zones. Buettner found people there do not drive much, rely more on plant-based diets and spend lots of time engaging in low-impact exercise, as many of them are shepherds.
There’s also Okinawa, Japan, where people commonly engage in small, lifelong friend groups, called moai. The social support and healthy interpersonal relationships are crucial to improving a community’s health, according to Buettner and his Blue Zones Project co-founders, brothers Nick and Tony.
Blue Zones has boiled down the common aspects of these communities into what it calls the “Power Nine principles,” which focus on healthy diet, light-but-frequent exercise and community engagement.
DeBolt said the addition of Adventist Health to this picture is a natural fit, given the historical culture of natural and personal health emphasis within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
With the purchase of Blue Zones Project earlier this year, Adventist Health announced Monday the launch of its “Well-Being Division,” highlighting its commitment to inspire health, wholeness and hope within the communities it serves, the organization said.
It dovetails what Adventist Health planned in 2017 when it was in negotiation with Providence St. Mary Medical Center for a merger of sorts with Walla Walla General Hospital.
Before the deal fell through, Adventist Health had agreed to transfer membership control of its Walla Walla assets to Providence, which would then assume operation of the campus.
In turn, Providence agreed to put $14 million over 24 years into a dedicated fund to continue promoting the Adventist Health mission of progressive health, wellness and prevention care in the Walla Walla community, the Union-Bulletin reported at the time.
Acquiring Blue Zones and bringing that flavor of health care to Walla Walla marks the beginning of a partnership and a community health initiative, officials said in a news release.
“Adventist Health’s launch of the Well-Being Division is an important part of our 10-year transformation strategy to move from a healthcare company to a health company,” Adventist Health CEO Scott Reiner said.
“Our mission to live God’s love calls us to care for communities in ways that measurably and sustainably improve well-being.”
This move marks Adventist Health’s commitment to improving quality of life for entire communities, which in turn improves health outcomes for individuals, officials said, noting this comes at a critical time during the COVID-19 pandemic and will help communities and people recover and build long-term resiliency.
The work of Blue Zones in more than 50 communities across the United States has been credited with double-digit drops in risk factors such as obesity and smoking.
This moment is “the ultimate public health dream,” DeBolt said with a laugh.
“This is a community transformation project.”
Traditional public health agencies are subject to what DeBolt called distractions, such as funding issues, politics and the unrelenting work needed for emerging diseases, public safety and natural disasters.
This new work offers the opportunity to move upstream of those things and put interventions in place before such health emergencies come, DeBolt said.
“I’ve really drank the Blue Zone Kool-aid.”