Hammond helps focus on healthy living

Published 7:50 pm Sunday, October 8, 2017

Since returning home to her native Vicksburg, Sarah Hammond has become immersed in two major community projects promoting health, wellness and education, but she stops short of calling herself a community activist.

But, she adds, “I had the honor to work with several people I would call community activists, Michele (Connelly), Linda Fondren, Marcia Weaver and Jane Flowers with the Vicksburg Live Healthy Action Team. It’s just an honor to be able to work with women of that caliber and inspiration.”

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Some of those women, however, might disagree with Hammond’s self-assessment.

Hammond was involved with the preparation of the application that led to Vicksburg receiving the Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which works to improve health and healthcare in the U.S.

“I grew up in Vicksburg,” she said. “My mom is Ann Wheelus, and my dad is John Wheelus. I left after high school, traveled all over the country and lived and worked in different places, and my husband and I, after living in northwest Arkansas for sometime, decided we wanted to come back from here.

“He’s from Vicksburg, and we both wanted to come back here and raise our family here. We love Vicksburg.”

Getting involved with Healthy Action Team, she said, was following in her sister’s footsteps. It was her sister who introduced her to Fondren and Shape Up Mississippi, and she began working for her as a grant writer.

Hammond’s experience working in the effort to win the Culture of Health Prize, she said, “Really opened my eyes how I could be a player for health in the community and support Vicksburg, and all it’s doing to support this culture of health.”

The Healthy Action Team, Hammond said, had some remarkable stories, adding “It’s just been amazing all Vicksburg has done, and really supporting people here in the city.

“I had the good fortune to wrap all that up and tell that story, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation really heard how far we had come in our community collaborations; it’s just been really inspiring.

“I’ve learned so much just in listening to the stories what’s been happening here.”

She said the applications for the award were actually essays. She attended the Healthy Action Team meetings, listened to the stories, and with the other women worked as part of a team putting the stories together in an essay form.

“There are three phases. We made it through three specific essay phases where we told our story and how we were coming together and how we were promoting the culture of health.

“Then when they got to the third phase, when it go down to the 13 cities, we had the site visit. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation came here, and we gave them the community tour and we had meetings with our community leaders — community conversations.”

The essays, Hammond said, got the city to the third level.

“And then our leaders really came forward and just exemplified face to face for Robert Wood Johnson that we were doing what we said we were doing. That was the feedback that we got, which was so awesome.

“When they saw how powerful our leaders were and how they were really coming together, I was proud just to be a part of it. I think as we went through phase to phase, growing up in Vicksburg, things are so different for the better now, I feel in Vicksburg.”

People here, she said, are working together and coming together and as the story was told to the site visitors, it became obvious how dedicated the people in the community are.

But, Hammond has another interest even more important to her than her work on the Healthy Action Team.

“My big passion in life is nature mentoring; connecting people to nature and sharing that with communities. Linda had started, along with the city and our partners, and United Way and Alcorn (State University) the community garden.”

And the garden has given her the opportunity to follow her passion by working with children to teach them about nature.

“My life goals are to connect people with nature, and the garden has been one way we’ve been able to do that.”

Her daughter is in the preschool program at St. Francis Xavier, which uses the Bookworm Literacy Program, that gets children out in the garden to see where their food comes from “and let them feel the dirt and touch the plants; we’ve done that with a variety of school groups.”

Hammond said she appreciates that schools in Vicksburg are recognizing the need for more experiential and hands-on education.

“You see that in the Academy of Innovation and the Ford Next Gen Learning focusing on STEM strategies.

“At the garden it’s an opportunity to play in the dirt come out and just experience it for what it is,” she said. “We put in the literacy aspect so we have them read a book about how a seed grows and come out and they planted a sunflower seed that grows up at their house.

“You have the informational piece. It’s so important to have that experiential piece as well, being out there with their feet in the garden, feeling the ground, let them feel the plants, we let them taste a little bit. Very hands on as get in and get involved.

“All of our groups are that way. They read, they plant plants; we really want them to get the full experience of how you get your food. Where does your food come from and how they can be healthy with things they grow at their own home.”

Hammond, who has degrees in biology and science education from the University of Southern Mississippi, said she is looking to create the connection with people and nature.

“I’ve been studying a good bit with nature preschools, because I’ve worked with every age group from children to adults, I’ve taught at universities, and right now I think that the biggest thing we can do for people for their physiological health for their mental health is to get them outside, especially children zero to 5.

“I think that’s like that critical period that of time in which we can connect people with outdoors.”

Part of that includes walks through the woods just to be outside and to let children decide what they want to do for the day.

“I just want people to know that if we want children to grow up to preserve and conserve, then it’s really going to take getting them to know the place where they live.

“My lifelong goal has been to come back to Vicksburg and start a nature school; a nature center or programs within the school system. I feel so strongly that it’s a critical component of health — being outside and connected to your environment.

“I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve had this year working and getting to know people in the community and how they are promoting health and what ways we have or promoting healthy environment. I’m excited at the possibilities and happy to be home and working in the community I know and love.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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