Chapter 10: A Grassroots Approach to Comprehensive Wellness

by Robert Helmer, Ph.D., J.D.

Posted on February 23, 2023

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The irony is that I was late submitting to the editor this chapter on leading a well campus because I was facing several challenges to remaining well myself. Over the two months that I had to complete this chapter, I was faced with the unexpected death of my mother, COVID among my family members (but not me, unless I was asymptomatic and the numerous tests with negative results were all wrong), the stress of trying to impossibly balance the university’s operating budget, and, most recently, the decision to move my father who suffers from Alzheimer’s from Indiana, where he has lived his entire life, to Cleveland to be near me. But of course, my situation is not at all unique. As I look around my campus, I see many of us who are caring for elderly parents, often with dementia involved. The effects of COVID, both physical and emotional/mental, are everywhere to be seen. And the enormous pressures of enrollment and finances that higher education institutions are facing can be felt by both faculty and staff daily. So, taking the time to intentionally focus our campuses on being institutions where the well-being of faculty, staff, and students is at the heart of the institution is much needed these days.

The story of Baldwin Wallace University (BW) and wellness is one of grassroots ideas and intentional institutional action. In June 2012, I was only a few days into my tenure as president of BW when my assistant came into my office to ask my thoughts on wellness by posing a question along the lines of “Don’t you think BW should focus on wellness?” And since it is usually hard to answer “No” to a question like “Don’t you think…” of course I responded that yes, we should most certainly focus on wellness. I came to find out that there was an unofficial, self-appointed “wellness committee” on campus, and my assistant was a member of it. The committee members had sent her to get a sense of whether I would support grassroots wellness initiatives on the BW campus. This began more than ten years of grassroots wellness initiatives that continue to have an impact both on individuals and on the culture of our campus.

Two examples of grassroots initiatives are the Brewhaha events and the establishment of a mind spa on our campus. Pre-pandemic, the Brewhaha events grew out of a grassroots staff initiative to increase positive morale and strengthen the sense of community among employees. The idea was that we would gather quarterly for a couple of hours of beer, food, and friendly conversation. Each person would bring to the event a six-pack of beer, which would be combined with everyone else’s six-pack in exceptionally large trays of ice. Then through the evening, each person was welcome to try whatever beer looked interesting to them. At the end of the event, if you had consumed two beers, you would choose four of the remaining beers to take home. The food was provided by the university and was a simple menu. I ended up hosting two of these Brewhaha events annually at my home and the casual, fun evenings were essential elements of strengthening connections among people and building mental wellness among our community members. 

The mind spa concept grew from a need among employees to find a way to carve out just 20 minutes during the workday to quiet themselves from the hectic pace of their job responsibilities so as to better focus on the tasks at hand. A space on campus was identified and outfitted with subdued lighting, a massage chair, meditative music, and aroma therapy. The mind spa can be reserved in advance and has proven to be a popular offering on campus, with the space now being utilized much of the day. Through assessment instruments, the individuals using the mind spa report more productivity and a more centered mindset. 

I begin with that story and these anecdotal grassroots initiatives because over the more than ten years I have been president at BW, that sense of a grassroots approach to wellness has continued even as we became more intentional in developing institutional wellness programming. Faculty and staff continue to bring forward ideas for wellness, leading to a broad sense of ownership for wellness. 

In 2015, we began a more institutional approach to campus wellness, building on grant support we received in 2013 from our health insurance provider to fund a part-time Wellness Coordinator position on campus that would be focused on faculty and staff wellness. This individual proved to be instrumental in our continuing evolution of campus wellness initiatives. 

Survey results highlighted both physical and emotional needs, as well as informational needs that would improve employees’ lives. It quickly became clear that there were significant opportunities to improve the wellness of our campus.  

Our Wellness Coordinator began her work by surveying faculty and staff as to what their wellness needs were and what offerings the university might provide that would be beneficial in addressing those needs. Survey results highlighted both physical and emotional needs, as well as informational needs that would improve employees’ lives. It quickly became clear that there were significant opportunities to improve the wellness of our campus. In 2015, the Wellness Coordinator position became full-time time and fully grant funded as the insurance provider recognized the importance of this person’s work and impact on the BW community. This impact included less utilization of health care with a corresponding decline in cost. 

Based on feedback from faculty and staff, a series of seminar luncheons were developed and piloted. Two of the most well attended offerings were Science of Healthy: Helping Aging Loved Ones; Taking Charge Without Taking Over (four-part series—Crucial Conversations, Tenacity is Ageless: A New Perspective on Aging, Self-Care for Caregivers, and Legal Considerations for Caregivers) and Finding the Right Balance Between Profession and Parenthood. These luncheon seminars were attended by both faculty and staff members, and participant feedback was extremely positive both in terms of the usefulness of the information and the gratitude towards the university for providing these opportunities. 

Issuing challenges to our campus community also proved to be both popular and impactful. These challenges included a 30-day Gratitude Challenge, a 21-day Mindfulness Challenge, and a 30-day Walking Challenge. Teams of employees came together to “compete” against other campus teams. We also held social events around wellness themes. A popular one for men was Drafting Your Team to Better Health, which involved a tailgate party at my home with former Cleveland Browns players as well as local physicians who spoke on a variety of men’s health topics. For the women was Women, Wine, and Wellness, also involving local physicians and hosted at our home by my wife. 

Wellfest is a highly anticipated event that brings the campus together around the theme of well-being.  

In more recent years, in addition to the typical work of the campus Health Center, we began to broaden the wellness outreach initiatives that were offered to our student body. An important one of these initiatives that has become well-established on our campus is the annual Wellfest, which occurs in the fall of each year. Typically a half-day event held in the large open space in the campus rec center, it features displays of events, initiatives, and resources available to the BW campus community. Various demonstrations of initiatives, ranging from recreation activities to demonstrations on healthy cooking, have been featured. There are also opportunities for health screenings for all who attend. The event includes a farmer’s market where faculty, staff, and students can purchase fresh produce, healthy soups and salads, and fresh bread. Wellfest is a highly anticipated event that brings the campus together around the theme of well-being. 

Another area of campus that has been addressing student wellness initiatives has been our Division of Recreation Sports and Services providing organized outdoor opportunities intentionally centered on the theme of wellness. Offerings have ranged from hiking and canoeing in the nearby parks to games and competitions on the campus quad. Perhaps it is because of the length of Cleveland winters that students have been flocking to the chance to be outdoors while the weather allows. 

The issue of food insecurity became a serious focus of campus wellness over the past five years. In the fall of 2017, faculty from the social sciences surveyed our student body on the topic of food insecurity. This survey was repeated in the fall of 2021. Both surveys showed that 23.3% of our students expressed food insecurity. One outcome of this work was the establishment of a food pantry for students that is housed directly on campus. Through the use of an app developed by faculty and students, students can access available food at any time. Strong satisfaction surrounding this initiative has been reported by students. 

Both surveys showed that 23.3% of our students expressed food insecurity.  

In terms of the spiritual wellness of our campus, we made a significant departure from past practices beginning with the fall 2022 academic year. Previously we had somewhat simplistically promoted that having a Campus Chaplain was sufficient to address the needs of our campus community. But of course, as has been the case on many campuses (mirroring the nationwide trend among Americans), we saw the interest in organized religion and religious services decline fairly dramatically among our students. Upon the retirement of our long-serving Chaplain this past summer, we refashioned the position of Chaplain into a Director of Spiritual Life position. Whereas previously the chapel was only open mainly for chapel services, the building is now open for all student faith-based groups to see as their home and for all student groups of any type to utilize. Our new Director of Spiritual Life believes that the setting itself is conducive to supporting the life of the spirit. 

In conclusion, I share this anecdotal account of wellness at BW because it has been the interest and the willingness of the BW community to develop, pilot, assess, repilot, and assess again a variety of wellness initiatives that has led our campus to a stronger focus on the well-being of our people. On an annual basis, approximately 50% of the nearly 1,100 BW faculty and staff members engage in at least one of these wellness initiatives. This level of engagement also allowed us to successfully navigate the pandemic from a position of relative strength. What began as a focus on physical well-being has become a more comprehensive, yet in some ways still grassroots, approach to wellness. 

As my presidential colleagues know well, the forces against a well campus are varied and strong. At BW, we made the decision that we could only serve our students well if we ourselves—the faculty, staff, and administration—were well, and so there we began. I would suggest that at this moment in time, listening to our people share what they believe their wellness needs are is the most important approach to campus wellbeing. That and a bias for action will serve our universities well into the future.