Angela Paulsen fills up her water bottle at Pemetic Elementary School. The school's staff has embarked on a pilot program to encourage wellness. PHOTO COURTESY OF DENCIE MCENROE

Pemetic launches pilot program for wellness

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — After 20 years at Pemetic Elementary School, Ellen Nolan is looking to inspire the staff in being their best selves, as much as the students.

A former cafeteria worker and now ed tech at the school, Nolan is leading a pilot wellness program among staff members. It’s aimed at improving employee health and thereby reducing health care and health insurance costs. Inspired by a wellness conference she attended that was hosted by the Maine Education Association Benefits Trust, an employee benefits plan, Nolan realized the school district did not have a program for staff. She wanted to change that.

Superintendent Marc Gousse said the timing was perfect because Nolan approached him just as he was thinking about how to implement a wellness program for staff in the district.

“The goal ought to be to have happy, healthy employees,” said Gousse. “If you do, you have a happy, healthy organization … I am so, so proud of Ellen. It was a gift to have her come forward.”

To kick things off this school year, participating staff has been given water bottles. Donations from several community organizations and businesses made purchasing the bottles possible.

“We need to make this a community effort,” said Nolan. “Everybody was so excited about the water bottles. They’re really trying to drink a gallon of water [a day].”

Specific areas of focus for the pilot program are drinking more water, monitoring blood pressure, achieving a healthy weight and addressing anxiety and depression.

“Most everybody has done something,” said Nolan. The program uses a program of rewards with prizes like gift cards.

“Something like that really gets people going.”

In the last year, the school district spent $6 million on health care, with another $1 million contributed by employees. Those costs include coverage for employees as well as family members within the plan. According to Gousse, approximately 15 percent of claims are categorized as catastrophic and another 45 percent are for chronic conditions.

While those claims are only coming from a fraction of the group, costs increase for everyone.

“You can impact that positively if you are proactive,” said Gousse. “We’re in the middle of a beautiful place with lots of resources that we ought to take advantage of … It’s about walking your talk and giving back to your community.”

For two decades prior to working the classroom, Nolan worked in the school’s kitchen. A health scare pushed Nolan to adjust her health habits.

“I didn’t know any of the things you had to do to get healthy,” she said. “I didn’t want to be on medication forever… I made a big lifestyle change and got educated.”

Nolan said it’s not her intention to be preachy, she simply wants her co-workers to have better information to help them get, or stay, healthy. Those participating in the wellness program must be on the district’s insurance to participate in the program rewards. Participation is voluntary.

“A lot of these people know me; I think that helps,” she said. “I’ve been there and I know exactly how they’re feeling … I haven’t been on medication in many years and it’s my goal to help everyone else get there.”

Near the end of this school year, Gousse and other staff members will be better able to see if the pilot program was a success or not.

“The intended plan would be to take a step back and see what the successes and hurdles were,” said Gousse about expanding to other schools. “It would need to be something our schools would welcome and embrace. We’re trying to do this on a grassroots level with minimum expenditure.”

“People like Ellen are helping me think about our lifestyle,” he said. “The approach she’s taking is the logical one, the pragmatic one and, quite frankly, the right one.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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