Meet the Be Healthy Team: Eloise Elliott
Throughout 2023, Be Healthy’s fifth and final year of this five-year cooperative agreement with the Center for Disease Control’s HOP (High Obesity Program), we will be releasing quarterly conversations with core team members, where they will share insight into the projects we have the privilege of supporting, reflect on their findings, and make strides to continue increasing access to healthy foods and physical activity in West Virginia.
This is the first installment of our Meet the Team series, featuring Eloise Elliott, Co-Director of the Center for Active WV and Director of the West Virginia CARDIAC Project.
For Eloise Elliott, Co-Director of the Center for Active WV, physical activity has been a lifelong passion — one she has dedicated much of her career and education to sharing with others in West Virginia communities.
As a core team member in the Be Wild, Be Wonderful, Be Healthy project, a five-year CDC-funded High Obesity Program (HOP) that began in 2018, Elliott brings invaluable experience, unmatched compassion, and a wealth of knowledge to the table.
Through HOP, Be Healthy has provided critical funding and support to more than 40 community-based projects that increase physical activity access and access to healthy foods in McDowell and Clay Counties. Counties which have adult obesity rates of 40% or higher are eligible for HOP consideration, and HOP project locations are selected by the CDC.
“I have worked with counties throughout the state of West Virginia for many years aiming to help improve the health of our children, their families, and communities at large,” Elliott said. “When given the opportunity to work with the HOP grant, I immediately said yes, as increasing access to physical activity opportunities and health foods, especially in rural West Virginia, has always been a focus of my work and of the previous grant projects that I have been involved in.”
After graduating with a degree in elementary education from Concord University, Elliott’s first job was teaching physical education in Mercer County, one of the state’s southernmost counties.
“As a Physical Education teacher, I taught in many schools and saw students each week,” Elliott said. “I realized the need to educate all populations about the benefits of physical activity and to help everyone find the activities they could enjoy. So I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Physical Education and eventually taught some adjunct courses at Concord.”
Elliott spent 13 years teaching at Mercer County Schools before accepting a faculty position at Concord in the Department of Human Performance and began pursuing a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis on physical education pedagogy.
“Teaching undergraduate students at Concord in the Health and Physical Education Program helped me realize I could make a difference in the lives of college students and school-aged children, and it inspired me to continue to seek new ways to apply my energies and passion that could potentially make a positive difference in the health culture in West Virginia,” Elliott said.
Soon, she got involved with the West Virginia CARDIAC Project, housed within West Virginia University’s School of Medicine. The project collaborated with schools across all 55 counties to conduct health screenings, analyze the data, and equip schools with support needed to help teach students about the importance of physical activity and nutrition. Elliott received grants to create interventional strategies and web-based resources, enabling educators across the Mountain State to access the curriculum from the convenience of their classrooms.
Inspired by the impact, her involvement continued with the WV CARDIAC Project initiative. Today, she serves as its director.
“I think my work with the CARDIAC Project gave me the insights to continue to pursue grant funding to deliver interventional strategies, health screenings, and other educational resources to improve the health of West Virginians,” Elliott said. “I accepted the position at WVU in 2010 as the Ware Distinguished Professor because the purpose of the endowed position was to provide service to the state of WV to improve children’s health — exactly what I wanted to do!”
Elliott said it has been rewarding to see so many Be Healthy projects come to fruition over the years. Some projects are multiyear partners who have received funding to expand their projects or sustain their efforts.
“The most enjoyable experiences of course come from seeing the completion of a ‘plan’ that will promote physical activity and healthy food access, and working with folks that are passionate about helping the citizens of their county and beyond to become healthier,” she said.
Elliott added that it’s been a pleasure to collaborate with so many different groups and bring West Virginians together, adding that the WVU Country Roads Tour visits immediately came to mind as memorable experiences. For several days each summer, WVU faculty and staff traveled from Morgantown and beyond to volunteer their time and labor at different project sites in McDowell and Clay Counties.
“It was so good to see WVU faculty and staff be involved with community service and see what WV is really like and to see folks in each of those counties showcase what they have going on, and how the HOP grant has helped them to reach some of their goals in improving health,” Elliott said.
As a longtime Mercer County resident, Elliott said she enjoys being able to support local Be Healthy projects in neighboring McDowell County. She’s familiar with the area, but also the challenges residents face in those communities, which is a critical component of the work she does.
Often, Elliott says funding groups may approach communities, particularly rural areas, with solutions to existing problems without involving the communities. If that vital context is missing from the equation, projects may not be successful — or attainable — for those involved.
“I do think that oftentimes, we don’t take into account what the people who live there really want and need. And they’re very typically, in rural communities are rural counties. They’re very private, and it’s not always easy to get buy-in from them,” she said.
But WVU takes a different, more engaging approach.
“One thing that we’ve always practiced — and all the people I work with here at WVU — we know that the decisions to make anything successful have to be made by the people who are going to make the changes and who know the culture and who know the environmental systems and everything,” Elliott said.
Part of Be Healthy’s mission is supporting the creation and expansion of safe, accessible spaces for public recreation.
Public recreation spaces are limited or nonexistent in West Virginia’s most remote areas, and communities are often separated by long distances around mountainous terrain. Many barriers, such as transportation and financial means to cover fuel expenses, create barriers.
Elliott said one of the most impactful takeaways from her work was that a collaborative project requires commitment and participation from all parties to make it work.
“I think the biggest perspective I’ve gained is that it takes passionate leaders to make these kinds of changes in communities, and without that there’s going to be less progress made or any sustainability to carry on what’s already happened,” Elliott said.
As the Be Healthy project nears the end of its five-year cycle, Elliott said she hopes that the established projects’ leaders will continue to seek support from other funders in the future.
“Continued funding will help to sustain what has been accomplished so far to fund their plans moving forward,” Elliott said. “I do believe that these two towns now have ‘plans,’ and I believe that this will spread to other parts of the county and could possibly encourage collaboration and cooperative work moving forward.”
Reflecting on the Be Healthy project’s overall impact, Elliott said it’s been rewarding to see the projects in McDowell and Clay County take shape and make noticeable, lasting change in their communities.
“I feel like the greatest achievements of this project have been in the motivation and accomplishments of the two county seats, Welch and Clay, to strive to make those towns offer more physical activity opportunities and more walkable options and to be more aware of why healthy foods and physical activity accessibility is important,” Elliott said. “I feel as though they are now considering what still needs to occur in continuing their efforts to move the needle.”