Each year, the National Civic League awards cities nationwide with the All-America Cities Award, acknowledging their efforts to improve their residents’ lives.
The 2020 award focused on health and wellness, and 10 cities overcame numerous challenges, including a global pandemic, to earn this distinction.
A review committee, comprised of experts from various fields pertaining to that year’s theme, studies each application and narrows them down to the top 20. These community entities are then invited to an awards ceremony, where each makes a final presentation before a panel of judges, who then vote on the top 10. These are named that year’s All-America Cities, and this year they included Algoma, Wis.; Danville, Va.; El Paso, Texas; Franklin, Tenn.; Miami Gardens, Fla.; Muncie, Ind.; Pitt County, N.C.; Portsmouth, Ohio; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; and Rochester, N.Y.
In many cases, it is not the city’s government but local schools or nonprofit entities that actually apply for the award. According to Rebecca Trout of the National Civic League, this is not uncommon.
“We’re not necessarily looking to award the city government, but we’re looking to reward the community as a whole,” Trout said.
Below is a partial list of 2020 All-America City award recipients.
Algoma is an example of a school district working to better the overall community, accomplishing this through the Live Algoma Initiative. Live Algoma has introduced programs like Wolf Tech, the Algoma Community Wellness Center and the Wolf Den.
“I think what really was unique was their application was actually led by their school district, and it had a high amount of youth involvement,” Rebecca Trout of the National Civic League said.
Algoma experienced what Trout called a “brain drain,” with youth growing up and leaving the community for outside careers.
To change this, Live Algoma launched Wolf Tech, partnering high school students with businesses and manufacturers. Students build a rapport with local employers, who provide leadership, mentorship and future job opportunities.
Through the Community Wellness Center, located at the high school, all ages come together to learn to live a healthier lifestyle.
“Those people are in a relationship in our community,” Algoma Schools Superintendent Nick Cochart said. “It’s no longer the 75-year-olds looking down on the youth, and it’s no longer the youth looking down on the 75-year-olds. It’s a mutual respect for each other.”
Wolves and Pups pairs at-risk elementary students with high schoolers, who provide a good example and a listening ear. When several of the “Wolves” learned their “Pups” were feeling isolated due to a number of factors, they started the Wolf Den after-school program, a safe place where young students can learn and socialize.
“Truly, it’s a school district with leaders working to improve their community as a whole,” Algoma School District Director of Improvement and Community Engagement Teal VanLanen said of all three programs.
Danville’s programs fall under The Health Collaborative, which has launched Fit Mobile, the Youth Health Equity Leadership Institute and Community Health Workers.
Through Fit Mobile, Averett University students work with Danville Parks and Recreation personnel to provide free community wellness activities, like nutrition programs, fitness-related activities and more.
Operating at eight locations, five days a week, FitMobile reaches all ages.
“The participants have really embraced the students and parks and recreation,” Danielle Montague of Danville Parks and Recreation said. “The children who work out with the students are able to actually be children.”
Adults have also given positive feedback.
“A lot of adults are seeing more confidence in themselves,” Montague said. “And, on the other hand, they are able to walk up stairs more easily; they are able to get more mobility without pain.”
Jason Bookheimer, Danville parks department, added the program has influenced students’ career paths. The university has also reworked its curriculum to include a class through which students participate in the program.
Shani Gaylord and Rhynecor Inge oversaw the Youth Health Equity Leadership Institute, a five-year, grant-funded pilot program encouraging high school students to graduate on time and plan for success.
Community partners mentored students, providing a safe space for them to meet their potential. Among YHELI participants, the graduation rate was between 99% and 100%.
“It’s just exciting to know that students want to do well, with having that safe space,” Gaylord said.
The Community Health Worker Initiative trains health care workers to come alongside Danville’s more at-risk populations. CHWs connect individuals and families to medical care, with the ultimate goal of decreasing emergency room visits and raising awareness of health-related disparities.
El Paso, Texas
El Paso Deputy City Manager, Public Safety, Dionne Mack highlighted two of the city’s programs submitted for the AAC award.
Wanting to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, the El Paso Behavioral Health Consortium partners with The Family Leadership Council, the Justice Leadership Council and the Integration Leadership Council, along with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation.
“The consortium has significantly increased mental health first aid among first responders and other public servants, reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and increasing access to mental health services by integrating them into primary care and other health and human services settings,” Mack said.
As a border city, El Paso has a unique position. In 2019, tens of thousands of people came into El Paso and other cities from Central and South America, seeking asylum.
The city was not about to say, “no.”
Local churches and organizations, like St. Ignatius Church and Annunciation House, along with members of the community, provided food, shelter, clothing and other resources these new arrivals needed.
“Through tireless hours, community members from all walks of life and organizations gave of themselves to raise funds, secure temporary housing and provide goods and services to the multitude of asylum seekers who came with nothing,” Mack said.
According to the AAC website, El Paso also takes care of its four-legged residents. The local shelter is focusing on attaining no-kill status through programs like Trap, Neuter, Return and the Animal Protection Academy. The El Paso Veterinarian Association and Community Foundation’s Animal Collaborative host free pet vaccination clinics, and the Kiddie Reading Club invites children to read books to shelter kittens.
Ball State University’s Jane Ellery spearheaded Muncie’s application, focusing on the Web of Support program, Schools Within the Context of Community and the 8twelve Coalition.
Web of Support began in January 2020. It operates under the belief that — to achieve a healthy, successful life — a person needs a web of at least five “strong anchors” in his or her life who can provide both tangible and intangible support.
For a child, these can be family members, teachers, coaches and other adults. This web changes as that individual grows, but the need remains. Students learn about “webbing up,” surrounding themselves with at least five positive adult influences. Adults are also encouraged to “web up” while learning how to serve as the anchors kids of all ages need.
More than a decade ago, Ball State University’s Teachers College joined forces with Muncie’s Whitely Community to form Schools Within the Context of Community, an intensive, immersive semester during which preservice teachers become part of the community, working in the schools and at after-school programs while participating in community events and activities.
The idea, Ball State University’s Jane Ellery said, is to give the teachers firsthand knowledge of the variety of contexts from which their future students will be coming.
Greater Muncie Habitat for Humanity and the Vectren Foundation formed the 8twelve Coalition, battling neighborhood decline by focusing on housing, jobs, education and beautification. Projects are resident-driven, with support from local nonprofit organizations and businesses.
“They have gone into the neighborhood and given it a voice,” Ellery said.
Pitt County, N.C.
In Pitt County, inmates reentering society had little access to resources or housing and often ended up back in prison. The Pitt County Local Reentry Council seeks to reduce this number.
“We have a sheriff who is really focused and dedicated on bringing all the resources she possibly can into the detention center,” Pitt County Recreation and Projects Coordinator Alice Keene said.
The Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program offers daily classes and activities to help inmates overcome addiction. Other programs offer GED assistance, employment training, mentoring, career readiness and many other tools inmates need to integrate successfully back into society.
Health care for underserved populations was another concern.
“The reality was there were a lot of people in the rural parts of our county who were totally disconnected to medical services,” Keene said.
The county launched the Community Paramedic Program, training medics to work with the rural population, ensuring they can access medical services and know how to use them. Through this, the number of visits to the local emergency rooms has greatly declined.
The Farm and Food Council resulted from a two-year task force study based on a desire to establish a viable local food network in Pitt County.
The local farmers market features a farm school that provides training on the business aspect of farming. A community garden teaches local kindergartners about nutrition and growing their own food. The Pitt Food Finder app lists food pantries, soup kitchens, farmers markets and other places where food is available.
“We’ve seen much success across the board,” Keene said. “It’s been a collaborative effort between county government, the cooperative extension and our community partners.”
“They did a great job of meeting residents where they are,” Trout said of Rochester.
According to the AAC website, nearly one-third of adults in the area surrounding Rochester had high blood pressure. Aware of the dangers, the Blood Pressure Collaborative launched in 2010.
Data showed the city’s Black and Latino populations were underserved. In response, the collaborative honed its strategies to reach out to those who were being left behind.
Disparities did not exist only in health care. Statistics showed suspension rates among Black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately high.
The Community Task Force on School Climate formed and immediately moved into action. A report from the Alliance for Quality Education led the school system to update its disciplinary code. Terms were redefined, suspensions were designated as last-minute resorts and restorative practices were put into place. In the first two years, the schools’ overall suspension rate dropped dramatically.
Rochester’s El Camino neighborhood is known for its poverty rates. Wanting to improve the quality of life for those who lived there, the Ibero-American Development Corporation and the city created Project HOPE, which led to the formation of the El Camino Charrette and Vision Plan.
Book clubs, neighborhood groups, a walking trail and La Marketa cultural market all grew from these efforts. Parents helped create a children’s garden in what used to be a spot for drugs and prostitution. The !No Mas! syringe cleanup effort tackles opioids locally.
“It was really community members and organizations that drove this process and are the reason why we are an amazing community to work in and live in,” Kelly Miterko, Rochester director of policy, said of these programs.