15 new local projects to strengthen community wellbeing in Willmar

The community of Willmar, Minnesota has seen significant demographic shifts over the past several decades. This demographic shift has not been without its challenges, and the community has learned a great deal along the way. State demographers point to Willmar as reflective of the demographic shift that will occur across the state over the next couple of decades. Given that, ChangeX and Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention have partnered with the community of Willmar to bring the ChangeX opportunity to people across the city. This is a chance for us to support this community while also learning from their challenges so we can proactively work across the state to prepare for this shift.

A city of 20,000 people situated two hours West of the Twin Cities, Willmar is widely considered a great place to live. The city is home to many community initiatives, such as the Community Table, which aims to improve health and increased connectedness across the community, and the Willmar Community Center, which works to enhance the quality of life for all residents. Like many cities, Willmar has some challenges to tackle, such as loneliness, obesity and exclusion, while boasting an abundance of creative, energetic people determined to make it an even better place to live.

Along with Willmar residents, we have set a goal of inspiring and supporting 15 new teams to start projects from the ChangeX platform over the next six months. What will it look like to have this density of starters in a short timeframe in a city of this size? We’re excited to find out. Our hypothesis is that this initiative will improve connectedness, inclusion, and health for members of the population who take part.

The initiatives that will be started will all be focused on community wellbeing. Local changemakers will work on ideas such as CoderDojo (free coding clubs), Welcome Dinners (cross-cultural dinners), Grow it Yourself (food growing clubs), and Men’s Sheds (groups of men coming together around a shared interest), positively impacting neighborhoods across the city. Over time we hope we’ll be able to adopt what we learn from Willmar to more communities across the state and country.

On the evening of February 7th, close to 80 Willmar community members braved the cold and ventured out to the Goodness Coffee House to connect with others and find out about actions they can take to strengthen their community.  It was an energizing evening, where participants heard from community members and from ChangeX about the opportunity available.

Community members talked about the many initiatives that already exist in Willmar, and how they could be made more inclusive or welcoming. Is the existing community garden enough, or would starting a couple more across the city be beneficial? Locals who share different backgrounds often see each other around town, but what would it look like to invite a family from a different background over for dinner? There is a woodshop at the Community Center, but is there a space where older men with an interest in music can come together? Ideas such as GIY, Welcome Dinners, and Men’s Sheds were discussed, and many of those in attendance committed to start or join one of these ideas.

Since the event, a number of Willmar community members have already stepped forward to start an idea from the ChangeX platform.

Nick recently moved to Willmar from Chicago, Illinois and was looking for places to connect in meaningful ways. After attending the launch, he is now going to start a Men’s Shed, a space in the community where men can find meaning, friendship and belonging:

 I think a men’s shed would help to get a start in bringing people together to participate in fun activities.

CoderDojo, the free coding classes for kids that already have 232 chapters across the US and 1675 around the world, is another idea that got a community member named Doug excited:

I’m a retired elementary teacher who closed up his career with Willmar Public Schools by teaching for 11 years in a computer lab for 5th and 6th graders. We did not cover coding, but my granddaughters are in clubs and I know they enjoy the challenges.

Another idea that’s gaining traction and interest so far is Cycling Without Age, which is all about giving older people the opportunity to feel the wind in their hair and engage with the local community through bike riding on specially designed rickshaws. This one is not new to rural Minnesota, as there are already chapters getting up and running in Watertown, Owatonna and Mountain Lake. We can’t wait to see this idea happening on Willmar’s beautiful outdoor cycling paths.

On March 22nd ChangeX will be holding a follow-up event at the Willmar Community Center where we’re excited to connect with the community again, to learn what their biggest challenges are in starting the ideas, which ideas resonate most, and how we can help.

It is already clear to us that people in Willmar know how to get things done. We are so excited to work with community members from all backgrounds over the next 6 months, to listen and learn, and to support them to improve community wellbeing in their city.

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