"To be a community sparkplug means you are passionate about touching lives and inspiring others."

Tekeema Parson inspires those around her to reach for their best. Already committed to improving her own health through exercise and healthy nutrition, Tekeema created the Virtual Workout Crew to influence her network of online friends to do the same. At home in eastern North Carolina, Tekeema saw the Community Sparkplugs for a Healthy North Carolina program as the opportunity to help her neighbors in Kinston get active as well.

Six months later, 150 or more women of all ages, colors, sizes and backgrounds bring an abandoned nightclub to life several times weekly for Zumba classes where they dance their way to healthier weights and lower their risk for heart disease and diabetes. When it comes to making North Carolina’s communities healthier and more active, the most creative solutions often come from inspired individuals, like Tekeema, with the passion to make a difference for their neighbors.

Working in partnership with the N.C. Council of Churches, N.C. Recreation and Park Association, N.C. PTA and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation launched Community Sparkplugs for a Healthy North Carolina. Through a grant to The Rensselaerville Institute (TRI), the organization that created the community sparkplugs concept of short-term, citizen-led projects more than a decade ago, the pilot program focused on three counties – Caldwell, Lenoir and Scotland. These counties were selected based on the unique combination of low rankings for community health and the presence of community members with hearty can-do attitudes about making healthy changes.

With a small grant of $3,000 each, everyday citizens – from school-age children, to farmers, to church members – led 30 six-month projects focused on increasing physical activity and/or increasing access to healthy food. The projects in each of the three counties sparked big change as a result of the monetary investment coupled with intensive technical support from TRI.

Projects included new or expanded farmers markets and community gardens; walking trails; faith-based wellness programs; and new sports, yoga and dance programs. In Lenoir, Caldwell and Scotland counties, at least 7,300 people made significant changes to be more physically active and to eat healthier. Lenoir County has three new walking trails, three new community gardens, four churches with healthy food policies, and a new farmers market with on-site nutrition classes and cooking demonstrations. Caldwell County’s 12-year-old Sparkplug Daniela led a Plant-a-Row project encouraging community gardens that are supplying soup kitchens and correctional center inmates with fresh vegetables. And in Scotland County, projects included four new community gardens, a farmers market in downtown Laurinburg and three walking trails. Reinforcing their commitment to a healthier community, sparkplugs in all three counties already have more projects in the works.

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