She watched her family weather stray voltage problems and the 1980s farm financial crisis while growing up on a dairy farm near the northeastern Wisconsin community of Cecil.
“I saw my family go through a bad time,” she recalls with an air of sadness. “I watched my dad struggle with losing something important to him.”
Life moved on for Rhonda’s family, but she took that experience with her.
After selling their farm, her parents first opened a restaurant called Sally’s Supper Club & Catering in Shawano. After graduating from Bonduel High School, Rhonda received a culinary arts degree and worked as a chef for her family’s business. Today, her parents own another banquet hall, The Main Event Banquet Hall & Catering in Cecil.
Rhonda would later receive a sports medicine degree and last year completed her master’s in business administration in health care administration. Her agricultural, culinary, health care and leadership experiences all serve her and others well with her work for the Rural Health Initiative (RHI).
The connections she has made are put to use on the local level as well. In December, she was appointed to serve the remainder of a vacated term on Shawano’s city council. She is president-elect of her local Rotary.
“I remember being a small town high school graduate who just wanted to get away, but I’ve since come home to Shawano and want it to be a better place,” she said.
“This is my time to be busy. This is my time to serve and be able to do these things,” said the graduate of Leadership Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program) and member of the Shawano County Farm Bureau.
“Farm Bureau is a good group to help get the word out and to get to know people,” said Rhonda, who encouraged the RHI’s nurses from Waupaca and Outagamie counties to become Farm Bureau members.
When asked what she likes most about her job, she quickly answered, “It’s the relationships with farm families. They become your friends. You soon learn about the weddings, births and baptisms in their lives.”
She finds it rewarding to help people make healthy changes to their lives. Until she came to their kitchen, some patients didn’t know of their dangerously high cholesterol levels that could lead to heart attacks. Without the work of the RHI, some of these farm families would have likely found themselves prematurely without a parent.
“I wish their had been someone to simply listen to my dad back then,” she said of the formative events that led her on her career path.
She has the satisfaction of knowing her job represents a full-circle event.
“It is funny how all your life experiences and paths serve you later in life,” she said, “and just because you start on one path doesn’t mean that is the one you will finish on.”
She Brings ‘Kitchen Wellness’ to Rural Wisconsin
Some farmers take care of everyone else’s needs (including their animals), but neglect their own health needs.
That scenario is what led a group of committed individuals to create the Rural Health Initiative (RHI) nearly a decade ago.
Early on, farm wives advised organizers that their husbands would not take the time to visit a doctor’s office. So they devised a program where independently contracted nurses would give basic health screenings in the home.
“In most homes, lots of decisions (social, physical, financial) are made at the kitchen table. We coined the term ‘kitchen wellness’ to describe what we are providing,” she said.
Rhonda was hired in early 2004 as the executive director by the non-profit RHI’s Board of Directors.
“It’s our way of caring and giving back to agriculture, which is big business to our state,” Rhonda said. “We have to keep our farmers healthy and safe.”
Awards from the national and state hospital associations have recently recognized their work, but what was created in Shawano County is getting even more attention. It was replicated in neighboring Outagamie and Waupaca counties last year; a move that was made easier by strong local support and having many of the same vendors and services as Shawano County.
Rhonda works with each county and each operates under its own budget. She notes that the expansion to the new counties means a new educational process.
“Often times people perceive this must be for someone else,” she said, “but we let them know it’s not just for livestock farms, it is not just for small or large farms, it’s not just for those with or without employees, those with high or low incomes, those with health insurance or not.”
The qualifications are the recipients must be adults (there are other services available to children), must reside in the service area (county) and must somehow be involved in agriculture.
“Beyond the farm, that could be a milk man or hoof trimmer. Some agribusinesses offer this as a service,” she explained.
The latest county to show an interest in this concept is Marathon: a geographically large county with many farms that surround its population base of Wausau. The Marathon County Board of Supervisors recently committed to making it the healthiest of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Marathon County differs from Shawano, Outagamie and Waupaca counties as it is home to three large healthcare systems and a different set of agribusinesses.
“Something big is going to happen out of that,” she predicted.
Marathon County’s interest coupled with an overall increased awareness by leaders in the health of their communities, has spurred thoughts of expanding such a service on a regional or statewide scope.
Rhonda said one component of the federal Health Affordability Act requires critical access hospitals (the designation for small and usually rural hospitals) to assess community health every three years. With public health departments also required to do this on a separate schedule, it is leading to more coordinated efforts.
“How do you look at a county’s health without considering the county’s entire landscape, which includes the health needs of people on farms?” she asked.
She summed up the progress of the program with a farm analogy.
“We are planting seeds with patients and donors and it is starting to blossom with interest from other counties,” she said. “We haven’t seen the full effect yet, but a good yield is coming.”
Story by Casey Langan. Original version appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.