Since taking office in 2016, Mayor Steve Noble has put forth a vision for a 21st-century Kingston that incorporates the concept of “wellness” as a lodestar for planning, programs and even the streetscape. It is a city where brisk walks on a rail trail offer free, easy to access exercise, 20th-century streets built around a car culture are put on a “diet” to make way for protected bike lanes and where healthy food choices are available in every neighborhood. It’s an ambitious plan, built around a core of volunteers and a vigorous grant-seeking operation.
At the center of the plan is Emily Flynn, the city’s new health and wellness coordinator. From her standing desk in an office on the second floor of City Hall, the 39-year-old graphic designer and cycling enthusiast coordinates the efforts of the “Live Well Kingston” initiative. She serves as a liaison between city government and a dozens of local nonprofit, private and county-level wellness organizations and is working to get a health program for city employees off the ground.
“The idea is to bring together all of these wellness organizations — and I consider that a broad term — to network, to create common goals, to share resources,” said Flynn of the Live Well Kingston program. “All of the good things that happen when you break down barriers between organizations.”
Live Well Kingston began as a program of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County. Noble was an early member and proponent of the initiative when he was an employee of the city’s recreation department. When he became mayor, Noble folded Live Well Kingston into city government, making it an official volunteer commission. In 2016, the city got a $60,000 two-year grant through the NoVo Foundation to hire a coordinator for the program. Flynn, a Live Well Kingston committee member, was tapped for the job. The position is part-time, 22 hours a week and pays $23,000 per year, in addition to benefits. Flynn is Live Well Kingston’s sole paid employee and her salary and benefits are covered entirely through the NoVo grant.
Flynn’s job includes overseeing five Live Well subcommittees — Eat Well, Travel Well, Play Well, Heal Well and Age Well. Each panel seeks easy and low- or no-cost ways to connect city residents with healthy opportunities. The Age Well Committee, for example, runs a program at Yosman Tower and Governor Clinton senior housing complexes that uses volunteers from Kingston High School to teach Internet literacy to seniors. Flynn said the program started after Age Well volunteers learned that 60 percent of area seniors lacked web access. The committee raised funds to install two computer terminals at each of the housing complexes, then got high school students to teach residents how to use them. So far, Flynn said, 30 people had completed the “cyber-seniors” program.
For Flynn, the program embodies her expansive view of wellness as a concept that goes beyond access to healthcare and healthy food and into issues of safety, security and connection to the outside world.
“When you don’t have access to the Internet, you don’t have access to community, health resources, job resources, there’s just so much,” said Flynn.
In addition to coordinating the work of the Live Well subcommittees, Flynn serves as a liaison to agencies and organizations outside of city government ranging from the county health department to an organization that trains youth in bicycle repair and maintenance.
“It fills a niche to allow people to talk about health at the city level that wasn’t there before,” she said.
Exercise for workers
Recently, Flynn has begun a new initiative aimed at improving the health of city employees through voluntary, off-the-clock exercise programs. Recently, Flynn sent an email survey to gauge employee’s interest in an after work yoga class at City Hall. (The email apparently spawned a rumor that the city had hired a $50,000-per-year yoga instructor for city employees. Flynn does not teach yoga). Flynn is also starting a voluntary lunch-hour walking program for city workers.
Noble said he sees the employee health program as a sound management — potentially cutting down on sick days and other health-related productivity losses. Noble added that an employee health initiative works hand-in-hand with his goal of moving the city to a usage-based insurance plan that would offer financial incentives for a healthier workforce.
“We get more bang for our buck when our employees are here, working and healthy,” said Noble.
Much of the Live Well program’s initiatives are aimed at promoting a “culture of wellness” by making healthy choices and activities free and easy to access — for example, improving sidewalks and creating routes to make a walk to school more attractive than a car ride. Noble said he sees those kinds of improvements as key to the city’s economic growth as it seeks to attract new residents and new investment.
“A culture of wellness creates a quality of life that people want here in Kingston,” said Noble. “It’s why people move here or start a business here. It sets us apart from other communities that don’t have that.”