Health on the Plains: Episode 2, Thriving in Rural Kansas with Lisse Regehr

60 Min Read

Oct 13, 2023


Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H., C.H.E.S.


On Episode 2, host Wyatt Beckman takes listeners to Allen County, Kansas, where he talks with Lisse Regehr, President and CEO of Thrive Allen County. She shares how her rural health advocacy organization is working relentlessly to make Allen County the healthiest rural community in the state — one that thrives physically, socially, emotionally and fiscally. Hear how Thrive Allen County is pursuing innovative ideas, intertwining economic development and health, building community capacity and bringing partners together to rally around a shared vision of health.

Episode Highlights: 

  • 2:05-4:55 Lisse discusses Thrive Allen County’s whole-health approach and reflects on her upbringing, her work and family-related travels, and how she returned home to join Thrive Allen County.
  • 9:38-12:20 Wyatt and Lisse discuss how certain quality of life amenities, like a dog park, can attract and retain young professionals in rural communities.
  • 13:24-20:16 Lisse and Wyatt cover Thrive Allen County receiving the Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and what a culture of health looks like in Allen County.
  • 20:17-25:07 Wyatt and Lisse explore the importance of celebrating community successes and Thrive’s annual community dinner, recognizing success and contributions for volunteers and those working in health, recreation, education, and economic development.
  • 25:08-28:15 Wyatt and Lisse delve into leadership in rural communities and Thrive’s capacity-building efforts for community members and organizations.
  • 28:16-40:00 Wyatt and Lisse discuss the history and progression of Allen County’s investment into Lehigh Portland State Park, trails and rural bikeshare programs and how those investments yielded physical and social connections between communities, improvement of community health and wellness, positive economic impacts to the county and region at-large and served as a workforce retention and recruitment investment.
  • 40:01-43:41 Lisse explains how economic development and health are intertwined and explains how a closed hospital was converted into a grocery store in Iola, and the other physical developments that followed.
  • 43:58-53:51 Lisse outlines the issues and solutions surrounding transportation in Allen County and shares successes, such as the bike-in-a-box and bikeshare program, and stories of how this program helped those in her community get where they needed to go.
  • 53:52-57:40 Lisse tells Wyatt her vision for the future generations and meeting the needs of Allen County for now, and the next fifteen years.

Full Transcript

Voice over 00:00
This is Health on the Plains, a podcast about rural communities, rural life, and the many factors influencing the health and well-being of rural Kansans. Health on the Plains is a podcast from the Kansas Health Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization, committed to informing policy and improving health in Kansas, through honest nuanced conversations with leaders and doers from a variety of backgrounds. The Health on the Plains podcast offers unique insights into rural health challenges in Kansas and shines a light on the people and organizations working to make their communities healthier, more vibrant places to call home.

Wyatt Beckman 00:42
Welcome to another episode of Health on the Plains podcast. We had an amazing conversation. We’re here in Iola, Kansas, in Allen County, we are talking with Lisse Regehr, who is the President and CEO of Thrive Allen County, and they are just doing amazing, wonderful, really innovative work in Allen County, in a variety of areas and a lot of things that you might not associate with a health-focused organization. It’s a really cool conversation. There’s a lot of things here for all sorts of people. And I hope you enjoy. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Health on the Plains. I’m your host Wyatt Beckman. Today, we’re in the city of Iola, here in Allen County, and we’re in the beautiful building of Thrive Allen County. And our guest today is Lisse Regehr, who is President and CEO of Thrive Allen County. Thrive Allen County is a nonprofit rural health advocacy organization based right here in Iola. Lisse, thank you so much for joining us.

Lisse Regehr 01:47
Thank you for having me.

Wyatt Beckman 01:49
So we’re gonna talk about a lot of stuff. I’m super excited, and you all do so much here at Thrive. That part of the fun that we’re gonna have is figuring out how to to cover all the stuff we want to cover. But before we dive in, tell us a little bit about Thrive Allen County. Who are you, what you do?

Lisse Regehr 02:10
So I like to say Thrive is a health, wellness and economic development organization. And so when we talk about health, we talk about the whole health of a community, not just physical health of one person. But we talk about physical, social, emotional and fiscal health of people in community. And truly at the heart of who we are, we are a community-based organization. So we go into our community. And we have community conversations with every town in Allen County, once a year, and we sit down with them. And we really just ask what’s going well, what’s not going well? Where are your barriers? Where do you see your yourself in 10-15 years? Where do you see yourself next year,? And really have them open up about how they see their community in good and bad ways. And we’re, at the end of those conversations, we basically come back with a top three list for each of those communities. And then our community engagement team or whoever else on our team is best suited to work with them does that over the next couple of years. So yeah, so at the root of everything we do is our community. We also looked at data points, though,. We’ve utilized the County Health Rankings quite a bit to see where we fall in certain areas. Because sometimes the community might not be like, hey, you need to champion this one thing. But the data shows we most definitely need to champion that one thing.

Wyatt Beckman 03:34
Do you shorten it to Thrive often?

Lisse Regehr 03:36
I do. The problem we’ll get into with that. I always say Thrive. But this past year, we rolled out a new organization called Thrive Kansas. So we have Thrive Allen County that focuses directly on Allen County. And then, over the past probably eight plus years, we’ve really had a lot of rural communities in Kansas reach out and say, “How do you do what you do? We want to know how to do what you do. Can you help mentor us? Can you help write grants for us?,” any number of things. And so in 2016, we actually had a grant from Kansas Health Foundation that allowed us to start growing Thrive Kansas as an entity. Our work with Blue Cross Blue Shield on the Pathways Initiatives have especially informed us as to how to grow Thrive Kansas, but this past year, we officially became a nonprofit, has its own board and so it’s still currently  under the umbrella Thrive Allen, but it is its own thing and the next few years it will live as its own. But for right now, we’re all kind of still meshed together.

Wyatt Beckman 03:36
Very cool. A good problem to have. That you need to specify Thrive Allen County and Thrive Kansas. So that’s very exciting. Well, we’re gonna talk a lot about all the things that Thrive Allen County does, maybe we’ll touch on Thrive Kansas as well. But before we dive into that, I want to hear a little bit more about you, and I know you joined Thrive in 2014.

Lisse Regehr 05:05
Yeah, that’s correct

Wyatt Beckman 05:06
Before that you were in Minnesota.

Lisse Regehr 05:08
Yeah. My Long-o’s will come out every now and then when we speak and you’ll hear it.

Wyatt Beckman 05:12
And I I’ve heard you say that Iola is home. Yes. So what brought you back? What, tell me about that journey, the decision to come back.

Lisse Regehr 05:23 
Yeah. So my dad is a retired fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. And so we moved all around. I was born in Holland in the Netherlands. That’s where my name comes from. I lived mainly in southern parts of the United States. And every summer, we’d come home for at least a month. Or when my dad had to be stationed in South Korea, when I was in kindergarten, we lived here for a year, because my mom had three kids under the age of four at the time. So it was a lot for her. And so we moved back home. When my dad retired, out of the Air Force, I had two years left of high school, and we were able to move back home. This is where we always wanted to be. It was where our family was. So that was really exciting to come back and be in a smaller school district and actually be able to know everyone.  Not anything I had experienced before. So that was wonderful. And then I went to college at K-State and went off and did a year of volunteer work in Minnesota, and then decided it felt really good to be independent. I had always really relied on my family, and I needed to learn how to be on my own. And so I stayed up there for a decade, worked in nonprofits, and foundations, mainly in one foundation for about eight years, while I was up there nine years. And then started thinking in those last couple of years about “will I ever make it closer to home again?” And my sister, who’s two years younger than me, and her husband ended up moving back here from Oklahoma, I think it was probably 2013. And that summer, I came home to visit as I always did. And my two-year-old niece, she waited for me like for eight hours of my drive just waiting for me to come home. And then I remember pulling up into the driveway and she and her little two-year-old legs just running and she launched herself at me. And I was just like, I’m in love with this girl, like she’s my soulmate. And so, when I ended up leaving at the end of that week, was the first time in a really long time I cried part of my way home. And I knew that it was time to start thinking about making that change. And I got really, really lucky. I always thought I’d probably end up in Kansas City or Lawrence, just to find the right fit for a job. But Thrive ended up having a position open. And my brother-in-law sent it to me. And it was for a health care navigator, nothing I’d ever done. But the foundation I worked for did a lot with health care and health insurance, with the ACA just rolling out. And so I said, “Okay, I’ll send in my resume’,” and ended up talking to our CEO at the time for about an hour on the phone. Just had a fantastic conversation, really just made me so excited about all the opportunities that I could find here in my own hometown. So I moved home in late September of 2014. And my poor parents. I lived with them for about that first year because, as most people in rural knows,  it’s really hard to find housing. But I now live two doors down from my sister. So family is what brought me home and especially the kids.

Wyatt Beckman 08:42
That’s great. What a beautiful story. And it’s always interesting, exactly what triggers or what helps us feel the distance that we have from family. And it sounds like you came home that time and saw your niece and that drive home. It really hit you.

Lisse Regehr 09:02
That’s what it was. Yeah, my dad had literally, I think it was maybe a month or two before that, we had had a conversation and he said, “You’re an urban girl now. You’re never going to move home.” And I didn’t really have a way to tell him. “No, that wasn’t true,” because I had lived up in Minneapolis for a decade at that point. You know, you take a big hit financially when you move from an urban center to a rural place, and then you also, you’re just uplifting like 750 miles of your life. But it was, I can say looking back, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

Wyatt Beckman 09:37
You said when you were thinking about how you could come back home, you saw yourself most likely ending up in Kansas City, Wichita, one of the cities. Because in part the opportunities or some of the job options, the life amenities, you had pictured being part of your life, weren’t here. And it worked out for you. But I think that that idea is really interesting to think about and some of the work you all are doing to shift that perception of what life can be like here in Allen County.

Lisse Regehr 10:11
Yes. That’s one of the biggest things we work on, are quality of life amenities. And knowing that if you want to attract people back home, then you need to work on what are they used to in the city. So, one of the examples I like to give, this predates my time at Thrive, but we do a lot of the recruitment of medical professionals into our community. So we do the community side of recruitment. And we were recruiting dentists into town. And the first dentist that we were driving around said, “Hey, where’s your dog park?” And we just started laughing like, “Ha, ha, that’s funny, a dog park in rural Kansas. Like, no, the dogs just run around. You don’t need a dog park.” And then the second recruit said, “Hey, where’s your dog park?” And we didn’t laugh, we just said, “You know, we don’t have one.” And then the third recruit said, “Where’s your dog park?” And we said, “We don’t have one. But we’re working on it.” And it’s listening to our young professionals, who at that time, these were young professionals whose lives were in urban areas, whose children were their animals. And after a long day of work, they would take those children, those dogs, to a dog park, where they’ve watched them run around with other dogs, and where these people would get to hang out with other people who love their dogs as their own children. And they needed to be able to see “How does the life I live now fit into this area that I might move into.” And so, with that, we did create a dog park. And it ended up at the time being one of the more controversial things we did. Because people were like, “You don’t need a dog park. Who needs a park for dogs?” And what they didn’t realize is this is a park for people who love their dogs. And it’s not typically, anymore, medical professionals that you see there. It’s people who work in our factories, who after a long day of work in that space, want a space to sit outside and talk with other people and watch their dogs run around.

Wyatt Beckman 12:07
You were listening.

Lisse Regehr 12:08

Wyatt Beckman 12:08
You were driving those folks around, and you were listening to the things they’re saying and what they were, what they were pointing out, and then you’re ready to take action on what you were hearing and put that into practice.

Lisse Regehr 12:20
But one of the things we are most proud of is being a convener of organization. And so we might not have the answers. But we know how to convene the people that do. And people trust us enough to say, “Hey, come around this table at Thrive. And let’s have hard conversations.” And some of them are very hard. Some of them are fun. But a lot of them are really hard, because we’re tackling, you know, early on it was parks and trails. And now it’s like housing and child care. And it’s really socioeconomic issues that are deep, and generational and cyclic. And those take a lot more time to figure out then something where we are lucky enough to know or have really tight relationships with vendors, where we can say, hey, we need to put in this park or this trail system. These issues are just a lot harder nuts to crack.

Wyatt Beckman 13:09
Yeah, absolutely. Something that helped me hear about Thrive Allen County, specifically, is when in 2017, you all were recognized with the prestigious Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a national organization that does a lot of work for health and public health and health equity. And it was an awesome recognition that I’m sure, and rightly, you are very proud of. When I think about the Culture of Health Prize, and I think about how we, sometimes, our perception of rural, small communities, those two things don’t seem to necessarily line up with what we picture when we hear the words culture of health and hear small town in Kansas. So when you think about Allen County, and you think about a rural community, what does a culture of health  mean in a place like this?

Lisse Regehr 14:18
Yeah, the first thing I always tell people when they ask about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, is us receiving that prize does not mean we’re the healthiest community, because we’re far from it. And a lot of what we have going against us as southeast Kansas, as a region, is we’re poorer than other regions in Kansas, we’re less educated, and we have the worst health outcomes. We’re almost always in the bottom quartile of the County Health Rankings. And that’s for many reasons. There are a lot of generational poverty issues. There’s a lot of remediation that needs to happen from Superfund sites. So a lot of environmental concerns. A lot of things that we’ve been fighting an uphill battle with, but we are fighting. We are fighting for our survival. And not just that. We truly do want to thrive. But the reason that we were awarded the Culture of Health Prize is because we’re scrappy. It’s because we think outside the box. And it’s because we will not give up. And so when we went after that prize, the idea was, and I want to highlight, Thrive, did not win that award, Thrive, wrote it. And we we gathered the people together that needed to be at the table, but Allen County won the award. And so we pulled together, we wrote an application that really highlighted everything going on the community. But when they did the site visit, that’s when you really saw how quickly we can mobilize the community. We were the first community that ever had the President and CEO of RWJ come and announce it in their town. And so, Dr. Richard Besser came with his team and announced it. We had Senator Moran here, we had all of the heads of all of the health care foundations in the state here, anyone who’s truly been a supporter of our work, and one of the reasons why we’ve been able to make things happen. And we really got to celebrate that day. We dropped a banner from the building, when the announcement was made, and you just see hundreds of people outside of Thrive. We blocked off the street. It was just, it was amazing. And then, the rest of the day, we did this tour on MARV, which is meals and reading vehicle, an old school bus that actually takes food to kids in their communities. And they can sit on MARV and eat their free food and read a book. But we used it as our tour bus that day. And took that team and some of our VIP guests all across Allen County to show them why we did win. And so I guess a lot of that is to say, we didn’t win because we’re the healthiest community, we’re far from it. We won because we will not ever stop fighting to be that. And they could see that. And they saw the determination and the grit and the resourcefulness. We always say, like the people in our community work really, really hard day in and in day out, they don’t ever expect recognition, they just expect that they will continue to do the good things. And so it’s on us to recognize them for doing the good things. And so this was one really awesome way to get to recognize the community and to continue to get to recognize it. And in fact, this really put us as Allen Countians and especially Thrive on the map nationally, to go speak at conferences and to go talk with other rural communities. And sometimes people are like, well, Lisse “Why would you go to California to talk to a rural community in California?” I got some heat for that at one point. And I said, “That community is the same size as our community, that community has the same health outcomes as our community. And they’re working on how they change that.” And they said, “Hey, can we bring you out here and you meet with us for a couple of days?” I’m not going to tell a rural community no. I’m going to say, “We’re looking for a rural rising. We want to make sure our rural communities have the resources that they need, that their health outcomes can get better.” So yeah, I’m going to, if I have the time, I’m gonna go out there, and I’m going to try and help. And so we’ve been able to do that with a lot of communities, not just in Kansas, but across the U.S., which has been really great. There’s a rural community, Wichita County, that we work with through the Blue Cross Blue Shield Pathways program. And I remember one of the first times I ever got, it was the first time I ever got to go out and meet with them. They really, I don’t think they expected us to show up, like I made the appointment, we’re driving, you know, don’t remember how many hours that is, seven, eight hours, or it’s many hours, out west. And so the second time when I said, “Okay, we’re coming out,” they got their whole group together. And versus the first time it was one person. “And they just said, “no one ever comes, everyone expects us to have to go into an urban area, everyone expects us to travel the six to eight hours to get somewhere. And the fact that you guys are willing to come see us means everything.” And it really hit us at that place. Because we feel the same way here. And we’re in a much more populated area. They’re frontier out there, we’re rural here. And so it really hit home, that we all kind of feel the same way about that, that a lot of rural communities just don’t feel seen. And so we make it a part of what we do. We make a very big effort to make sure we go to those communities. First of all, I can learn so much when I sit down with people and when I see what they’re working with, they can talk with us about, “We’re trying to do this downtown or we’re trying to do this with our trail system.” But until you go there and they can walk you through it, you don’t truly know it. And then all of the  sudden, just like these ideas are just flying between everybody and it’s so energizing, it’s so exciting and you feel like you’ve got your rural friends for life who are fighting for you and want to see you succeed and then I just think it’s a great partnership both ways. I’ve always said with our technical assistance work with rural communities, that’s my favorite thing that we get to do, because I also learned from them. Because everybody’s doing something a little different. And there’s always stuff we can learn to bring back here as well.

Wyatt Beckman 20:16
Something you mentioned that I can’t help but notice about Thrive Allen County, I can literally see several appreciation plaques and sort of awards and recognition. Walking into the office today, you can see there’s community members mentioned, there seems to be a culture of trying to intentionally take time to recognize and appreciate the leaders and the successes you have. And when I think about my experience in small towns and in the world of public health and trying to do community development, a lot of times we’re so busy and so focused on doing the work that we, sometimes, we don’t take the time to recognize folks. And as you mentioned earlier, it’s not as if folks doing this work are doing it to get recognized. They do it because they really care and they’re committed. But it seems like Thrive Allen County says this is valuable to recognize people. Can you tell me a little bit more about the thought process behind being so intentional with awards and recognizing people’s success and their leadership?

Lisse Regehr 21:32
Yeah, so again, lots of hard-working people who don’t expect to be recognized or thanked, but they should be. And the more someone does work without recognition, I think, the more over time, either one, they get taken advantage of, or two, they just feel as though they’ve been taken advantage of, or they work themselves to the bone without that recognition in it. To me, that’s just sad. So years ago, actually, right when Thrive got started, we started an annual dinner is what we call it. I like to call it an annual celebration, because COVID kind of made some things go online, and then the dinner wasn’t a thing. But, so annual celebration, annual dinner. But we hold it the Friday before Thanksgiving. So in November. And every summer, we send out to the community, basically a plea, “Hey, we want you to nominate people or organizations in specific categories for us to celebrate at this year’s annual dinner. ” So the annual dinner, although we use it to write a report about what Thrive has done during the year, the biggest part of the focus is we highlight people in health, recreation, education, economic development. And then we have some special awards. We have our Volunteer of the Year Award, we have the Donna Talkington Award, which is our highest honor that we give out for people or organizations doing extraordinary work. And then we have the unsung heroes awards. And those are given out, not to necessarily leaders as you termed it, Wyatt. The unsung heroes are the people that truly are toiling in and out, doing work, that unless somebody who knows they’re doing it calls it out, nobody’s going to know. People just know that cemetery gets taken care of over there, or that food pantry is always full, or whatever it is. And so they get nominated. They’re not aware that they are nominated. We get whoever nominated them to find a way to get them to the dinner. And then they, and the Donna Talkington and the Volunteer of the Year, those are all people that have no idea that they won, we just have to find ways to get them there. They do very much appreciate it, it means so much to them. That night, I’ve had people tell me, especially right after COVID happened, how sad they were that we couldn’t meet in person, we still did it, we did it online. It’s just very different. But I’ve had people tell me they look forward all year to that one night. Because that is where they go to feel really good about their community. It’s where they go to hear about all the good things going on. And so we have the largest sit down dinner in Allen County. We usually have about 320 to 350 people there. And it really is about celebrating all the good. Also, the more you highlight the good, the more people want to do the good and the more people know they can be a part of it. And so at last year’s dinner, we also used high school students to give the speeches and to hand out the awards. But because we want them to see what’s going on their community, we want them to be excited about it. And so one of those high school students last year told her mom, she said, “Mom, I’m gonna go to college like I always planned, but now I want to move home. I want to be a part of this.” That’s what we’re aiming for. Right? We want to get these young people to go off and to explore the world. And then we want them to want to come back because they can see they can make a difference and awards like this and recognition like this show them. There’s a lot of great stuff happening here. I can be a part of that great, great vision and the great energy to make things happen. And the really awesome thing in a small community is you can see that progress a lot faster, often, than you can in a larger community.

Wyatt Beckman 25:06
I’m glad you push me on me saying the word “leader.”

Lisse Regehr 25:11
Well, just everybody, a lot of people, think if you say, I don’t think that that’s necessarily what you mean. But a lot of people when they hear ‘leader’ think, the CEO of an organization or title, right. And I tell my team that every single one of them are leaders, That when you are a Thrive employee, everyone in the community sees you as a part of Thrive and a leader in the community. And when I go talk with other rural communities, I make sure that they understand, if you’re in this room listening to me today, somehow you are engaged in your community, that means you’re a leader in some way. And that means you need to watch the way you talk about things. That means you need to be aware of how you are in your community, because people are going to look at you, and they’re going to take their lead and their cue from you. And so lead. The idea is not that we go into a community and we stand up at a podium, and we talk about this is what you should do. The idea is, you bring people around you, you empower the people right next to you, they empower the people next to them, and they empower the people next to them. And that ripple effect can become a tsunami of really great things that goes out. And everybody feels like they have a huge part to play in that. Because if everyone looks to Thrive and says, “you’re the only ones who can do it, you’re the only ones who can lead it.” That’s a failure on our part. Because we need to make sure that if, for any reason, we can’t step up, or we’re not here, that we have empowered the community to know they can do it on their own. I will say, one of my favorite, like, success stories with that is this little small town of Carlisle that we have. It’s on the north side of Allen County. And we had a community conversation there. I think it was one of our first ones after COVID, where we were coming back together again. And they said, “You know, we really need to talk with the county commission about X, Y and Z.” And I said, “You know what, we can we can go to the Commission, we can talk with them for you.” And he said, “Lisse, I really appreciate you volunteering to do that. But we need to do it ourselves.” And I was like, in my head, I was like, “This is everything we’ve been trying to get tp happen across the whole county!” And so, what they did, is a couple of those community members came into Thrive multiple times before they went talk to the commissioners. They sat down with the team. They talked about these are the things we want to go through with the commissioners, but they wanted to be prepped, they wanted to go there and look like they knew everything they needed to know, to address and be prepared with that commission. And they did. And they still come and meet with us. And that’s just it. We are here to support, we are here to encourage and empower. But at the end of the day, if you haven’t taught your community to do it themselves, they’re never gonna be able to do it. And so it is our job. To be able to say we have empowered you and taught you everything you need to know. That you can go address the commissioners or the city council or whoever it is that you need to go talk to, to make effective change.

Wyatt Beckman 28:04
So, Thrive, if it’s not clear already, you all work in a lot of different areas to do a lot of different things. I want to talk about something that is very well represented by this little bike we have here on this table. And if you walk into Thrive,  really if you drive in, if you bike in, if you come into Iola, it becomes pretty clear right away that there’s something going on with bikes here. There’s a big bike shop downtown right on the square. There’s a bike rack and a bike share right in front of your building. You walk in and there’s some spokes on the wall. Bikes seem to be part of the thing here. That wasn’t always the case in Allen County. And when Thrive started, there weren’t really trails here. Bikes weren’t as much of a part of Allen County and this area. But Thrive has made a pretty big commitment and a pretty big investment into building up trails and bikes here in Allen County. What’s that investment in trails and bikes meant to Allen County? What does that look like? And why has that become such a big part of this community?

Lisse Regehr 29:22
Yeah, there’s so many ways to delve into that. So there’s the health and wellness side, where a lot of people look at rural communities and think it’s so easy to be active and be outside because you’re small community. It’s safer. Well, there are very few sidewalks, huge implements that are going down your roads, not safer. And so we wanted to find ways to create safe places for our community members to be active. And so that was part one, but part two was we knew there was an economic impact side of that as well. So the Prairie Spirit Trail, which connects Ottawa to Iola and vice versa, that was put in. I think that was finished around 2008. And then the city of Iola brought in a connector from the Prairie Spirit through Iola, because they saw the need for it. And so then Thrive said, “Oh, we see a bigger need. And we see a huge opportunity to create the Southland Rail Trail,” which connects Iola to Humboldt via six and a half mile trail that used to be a rail line. But when that trail was created by volunteers from both communities, and then when you have people who utilize that trail from both communities, and so you start seeing the same person every day on that trail. So finally, you stop and you’re like, “Hey, isn’t this an awesome opportunity that we have here now, that we didn’t have before?” Start having a conversation, that conversation creates a friendship, that friendship creates a bike group, and then that’s what we have now. But again, it’s about building relationships. So much more than just, hey, you now have six and a half miles of safe places to walk and bike. You can build connection.

Wyatt Beckman 31:01
The physical connection and physical path opened up social, and friendships and emotional connections. Very cool.

Lisse Regehr 31:11
And so from that, we looked around and we said, “Okay, well, we ran out of rail trail. So where else can we build?” And this group called Iola Industries, they own the property called Lehigh Portland. And Lehigh Portland was an old cement quarry, and it closed in 1970. And in ’71, Iola Industries purchased it. And they utilized it to sell off portions of it for larger industrial needs, which was great, because the Portland, the Lehigh Portland cement factory had been our largest employer, and when they left there was a great deal of fear about what was going to happen to our community. And so Iola Industries stepped in and said, “No, we will make sure that other industry comes in.” So they did that. And then there was the lake. So the quarry was dug for the cement for the limestone. And so, when they first bought it, it hadn’t filled up all the way, the trees hadn’t grown back around it. But they had gone to the state and said, “Hey, what about a fishing lake?” And the state was like, “There’s like nothing there right now.” And so it took years for it to grow back and for the earth, basically, to reclaim itself. But it did. And so in 2013/2014, Thrive met with Iola Industries and said, “Hey, we have a vision of trails crisscrossing this area.” And Iola Industries, to their credit, said “Alright, you got it. You think it’s going to be an economic impact driver. We say go for it. Let’s see what happens.” And so, we were able to get grant funding and a ton of volunteers and build about 14 and a half miles of trails out there. So we have a two and a half mile, as we call it, a backbone trail. And then we’ve got about 14 miles of single track or mountain biking trails. And so, the really cool thing about Lehigh is that when they were mining Lehigh, they hit the groundwater table. And so the water is actually filtered in through the limestone through the bottom and up. So it’s crystal clear and you can see 40 feet deep down, straight into it. It’s absolutely stunning and beautiful. And so when the trails got built in 2014, they opened officially in 2016, in June of 2016. And so all these people started to come from all over. We would count license plates, like from California and Michigan. And I mean, just people stopping in from everywhere to visit, which was great. Though part of the issue was, at the time, the lake was leased for $1 a year, it was leased to a local club. And the hope was they would take care of it while Iola Industries decided what to do with that property. Well, as the trails really became so popular, all these people are like, “Well, we want access to this beautiful lake.” “No, you can’t have it.” But it really got us thinking here at Thrive and with Iola Industries. You know, initially, we always wanted it to go to the state. And, what if now is the time? Because we’ve built all these trails, we put over a million dollars worth of money and time and equipment into these trails. And so, about a year and a half, two years ago, we started having conversations with Wildlife and Parks, brought them out, just kind of felt them out like, “What do you think about the property?” And they said “This would be, if not the most pristine lake in our system, one of them.” Loved it. And we knew that we had to strike while the iron was hot because we had all those ARPA dollars that had come down and those are once in a lifetime opportunities. And so last year, we went to the Legislature and took a bill to create Lehigh Portland State Park. It was interesting. I learned a lot, my team and I did, about that process. But we worked with a lot of really awesome people up there and we were able to create Lehigh Portland State Park. That became official in April. And officially, it was deeded over to the state on September 1. So we are now working in conjuncture with Linda Lanterman, who is the director of the parks system, and created Lehigh Portland State Park. And so it’s super exciting because this gift that Iola Industries gave, this $2 million gift, is expected to bring, once the infrastructure has been built at Lehigh — which would be a visitor center, RV parking, camping, fishing, swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking — a seven and a half million dollar return annually into our region. So many people that are coming to stay in our Airbnbs, they all have bike racks, and they all have bikes on those bike racks. And they’re coming to check out the trails. And it’s just been so phenomenal to see that culture shift and the growth. And so yes, it starts with health and wellness. But then there’s this huge ripple effect with economic development as well. Like you said, we were able to recruit a bike store out of Kansas City. It was the year after, I think, Lehigh opened, because they said, “Look at all this traffic you guys have coming into your community, and there are no bike stores here.” In my mind, and it goes back to the quality of life. How do you create the amenities and the quality of life that people want in order to invite them to stay or invite them to move here? And when I look at my niece and my nephews, I think about I do want them to go off and explore the world, because I think that’s so important. But I also want them to know we want them back here.

Wyatt Beckman 36:38
It’s amazing to hear, in what’s really not that long of a time period, how physical investments combined with a lot of energy and a lot of hard work and intentional effort from different groups and different organizations, work together to change some culture, to change some behaviors, and all of that together over time shifts the story. It shifts the story about what the future can look like here in Allen County and what the story can be and what the story is. So instead of say, telling the story about how a small community that’s facing challenges with declining population are those common things the story can be, we have new trails, we have this energy, we have new businesses. And that’s something that can be really exciting for the people that have been here, but also to bring in the young generation, the folks that are thinking about coming to the community.

Lisse Regehr 37:42
Getting that kind of buy-in is really important. And getting those people excited again, to see them being able to play a part in the future of this community, is really important. But it really has been our number one recruitment tool. Our cross country coach at our college says that Lehigh is the reason they won nationals. He says he basically signs anyone he walks out to Lehigh for his team, because they’re like, “I can’t train anywhere better than this.” Our city administrator said he moved here because of our trail systems. We got dentists and doctors here because of it. You know, I work with mental health as well. And I know one of the last people they recruited in, it was while we’re going through the process of creating the state park, and I sat down with him and his wife, and he’s a runner, and he’s like, “Oh, this is so exciting to be a part of this right now.” And the state park, literally, is in city limits, which is also unique. And so there’s a lot we have to gain through that partnership with the state that I’m really excited to see come into fruition over the next few years.

Wyatt Beckman 38:41
Oh, cool. As someone that likes running, that would be a selling point for me, too. How cool. And what an awesome opportunity too. You’ve found ways to leverage that in so many ways. And it seems like there’s this momentum that’s built, and then you connect it with some other things, you build this greater momentum. At a certain point, it’s easy to say, “Wow, I’m missing out if I don’t join in on this.” And what a powerful recruitment tool that can be. You’re a health advocacy organization. And when I think about what folks might think about what a health organization is, health seems like it’s over here and economic development seems like it’s over here. But you all have made it very clear that economic development is something you’re committed to and see as important. How do you see those as intertwined?

Lisse Regehr 39:42
Yeah, so that’s a really good question. And what’s interesting is, over the years, we’ve had so many other communities come to us and say, “We want to do it your way. Like we want to combine them all together, because we see how successful that is.” We have the county and Iola and Humboldt cities, and Iola Industries, that local philanthropic business group, all come together to create a contract that allows Thrive to do economic development work. And we are the economic development arm for Allen County. But a really good example of this would be in 2008, Iola lost our grocery store. So our only grocery option was Walmart. And that’s on the north side of town, which is really hard for a lot of people to get to. And then we also had our old hospital that was right in the center of town close because we built a new hospital on the north side of town. And so that transition happened around 2013. So we started to figure out, “How do we recruit a grocery store?” And that was our number one issue that we were dealing with. But also, “What are we going to do with this old hospital site? Hey, also, we need housing.” So all these things were coming together as top priorities in our community. And so we were able, kind of serendipitously, at a party, one of the county commissioners was like, “Hey, what if we knock down the old hospital and put up a grocery store?” And I remember coming back into the office and being pulled into my CEO’s office at that time, and he was like, “So commissioner said this at the party.” And I was like, “Yeah, I heard that.” He’s like, “Yeah, we need to do it,” and I was like, “Right, so this is legit, we’re doing it.” And it just goes to show like, at the time I was brand new, I’d only been on a couple months. And I was still learning the culture of Thrive, which is yes, right, like not no, yes. And I’m like, “How do we do it? How do we do it better?” And so we started working. And we had a grocery store that had been interested in being in town. And then we had the city of Iola and  county government all coming together and saying, “We will assist in this project, because it’s so needed.” We had a lot of food deserts in the area. And so then we had Iola Industries come in and say, “Okay, we’re going to sell some land, and we’re going to take those proceeds and we’re going to build apartments.” So they built the first market rate apartments in Iola in more than 20 years. And they built them at the site, so that the grocery store coming in knew they had a partner already. So these people would just walk across the parking lot into the grocery store. So we did that. When we worked with the grocery store, we said, “Usually you guys go into old buildings, or you do the butler buildings, which are nothing to look at, right? But you guys are going to be one of the first things people see when they come into town. So we need X amount of windows, we need X amount of brick. Also, you need to be bikeable, you need to be walkable.” And they said, “Sure. Okay. Yes to all of it.” And so now, when you come into Iola on that east side, before, I still call it the hospital curve, but there’s no hospital there anymore. And now it’s a grocery store that’s there. But you’ve got 12 units of apartments, you’ve got a grocery store. And none of that would be there without all this partnership. And the grocery store would not have these huge sidewalks and picnic benches and bike racks. Had we not worked, they wouldn’t have all the windows or everything. If we weren’t looking at it from, not just economic development, but also health and wellness as well. We also look at, so for instance, one of the programs that we started a couple of years ago was transportation. So we do both public transportation and safety net transportation, because we were finding out, we had data from all of our partners that said, you know, people were missing chemotherapy appointments, because they couldn’t make it two hours one way to the city. They were missing dialysis appointments that are 25 minutes south of us, but they still couldn’t make those. People going a month without making it to the grocery store because no one could take them and they just had to wait until someone could take them to the grocery store. Like all these data points that hurt your heart to hear. And so we were able to be the smallest community to receive, I think, the National Center for Mobility Management grant, that really allowed us to start looking at “Can we feasibly create a program to provide these services?” And then we were able to partner with the county. And for a year the county provided public transportation and then they kind of wanted to stop that. And so Thrive had already started the safety net transportation where we would take people within two hours of Allen County for their appointments. And so we stepped in and said, “Hey, let us roll yours into ours.” And so now we have ART, Allen Regional Transit. And it really addresses a very prominent need in our community because people don’t realize, you know, we have 12,500 people but they’re spread over 505 square miles. And if your car breaks down, or you rely on family members and somebody gets sick, or they have to be on the line working in an industrial unit, like you’re not going to get where you need to go. And so we need to make sure that we can get them there. Its health and wellness, its economic development. It’s all of it again, rolled into one.

Wyatt Beckman 44:55
Transportation is a challenge that a lot of our rural communities are thinking about. Realizing that the sort of default of what we expect, a lot of times we’re talking about in an urban context doesn’t look the same way. And hearing how Thrive Allen County is identifying those challenges. The challenges, unfortunately, don’t sound unique. What sounds really powerful and perhaps unique is the way you’ve found the right combination of leadership, of committed folks involved, of partnership, of foundation, to find the resources that are here, and the energy that is here and just find the right way to unlock it. So you can go after and address those challenges. And with Thrive Kansas, I imagine it’s an opportunity to start thinking about helping communities across the state to do that.

Lisse Regehr 46:03
Yes, and that’s exactly what we do. And you know, what’s really interesting is one of the programs we actually have across the state of Kansas is through United Methodist Health Ministry Fund. And it is our, we call it our Bike in a Box Program. And so, talking about transportation. The first way we looked at going after our transportation issue was creating a free rural bike share program. And so when you talked about seeing the bike racks outside of Thrive. Part of that is, was it empty? Were there any bikes? No, because they’re all out. So this is a problem we’re running into right now. So we started our bike share program with five bikes in front of Thrive. And then we grew it to 10 bikes between our organization and another downtown business. Now we have more than 40 bikes spread out across the entire county. So we’ve got them at local industries, for their employees to use. We’ve got them at libraries. We got them at grocery stores. We’ve got them at our community college. We’ve got them anywhere, someone says, “I think they will be useful here.” They have a Google form that they check them in and out on. You don’t pay.  If you damage the bike or don’t bring it back, then you will go on a list. But, for the most part, people really respect those bikes. And, in fact, one of the stories I always love to tell because it comes full circle, is about one of our longtime users. So it used to be you get the bike for a 24 hour period. And then it became, well, we need some longer checkouts for people whose cars have broke or who truly just need this as transportation. So we also started an earn a bike program. So when our bikes get old and we need to do take them out of the system and bring on a new bike, we have people sign up to be on a list. And then they are taught how to maintain their bike. And then after they go through that training, they’ve earned their bike and they get to keep it. And so we had this one user who ended up being at home one night with his niece and he started to exhibit symptoms of a heart attack. And his niece said, “We need to call the ambulance and get you to the ER.” And he said “No, we can’t afford that.” And it got worse. And she said, “No, I’m calling the ambulance.” And he said “No, you will not. We can’t do it.” And this, just tons of problems with this situation right now. Third time she says, and he goes “No. I’ve got my Thrive Allen County bike outside, I’m going to take my bike. I’m going right into the ER.” To which I say, “Stop. Timeout. We do not endorse that. Please do not ride your bike to the ER. That will only exacerbate your issues.” But to this gentleman, he thought that was his only way to make this work, right, without putting his family into debt they could never get out of. And so he rode his bike to the ER. He literally walked his bike into the ER with him and he said, “Hi. I think I’m having a heart attack. Also, can you call Thrive Allen County and tell them their bike share bike is here.” He knew what that bike meant to him. He knew what it could mean to someone else. And so we literally have a picture I show when I present to communities that has the bike sitting outside of the ER, waiting for us to pick it up that day. When we started that bike share program, we thought, “Oh tourism.” Right? We just opened up the trails. People are coming in and wanting to ride bikes, but the families that they’re visiting don’t have as many bikes. So we opened up that program in the first week. The first three bikes that got checked out were a mom and her two children who needed to go to the federally qualified health center for their doctor’s appointments. The fourth bike was a gentleman who was driving it, riding it, six and a half miles out to his farm land because his car broke down and he had to get into town for work. So every day he was riding it, you know, miles into town and then checking it out. We finally said, “You know what, come in when your car’s fixed because you don’t need to keep checking it out. We trust you.” And then the others were being used for the grocery store, for paying their utilities. It was not for tourism. Now they are used for tourism. But what we saw very early on is this is solving a really big problem that we’ve always known we’ve had, which is transportation and the lack of that. The other issue is, you can’t have someone from Elsmore, which is, you know, a 30-40 minute drive from Allen County on the highway and back roads, taking a bike from Elsmore into Iola to get to the doctor’s office. Like that’s not feasible. So that’s when we started to ask our partners for their data about where are you seeing the need, and being able to track that, but I share that into Thrive Kansas, because this is one of the programs that we’ve been able to go out into other rural communities who obviously have transportation issues. And then United Methodist is able to step up and say, ‘Okay, we’ll help fund this to make this a sustainable program.” And then we’ve been able to implement that in communities across Kansas and Nebraska, actually, because they also fund in Nebraska. But we’re also, through Thrive Kansas, a lot of our main work right now is in two areas. One is care coordination. So I always call our care coordinators are our first line of defense. So these are people who assist people with Medicaid and Medicare, with health insurance, utility assistance, food assistance. And then the other program we have is about early childhood development and child care, which we see as a huge need everywhere in the state. And so we’ve got a program called Zero to Thrive, and it is addressing those issues across the state of Kansas and at a much larger level of policy. So a lot of work at the Statehouse with that one.

Wyatt Beckman 51:24
Oh, wait, we talked some about what it means for a community to show up. And what it says about you’re worth showing up for. I’m thinking about the same level, for the folks that are using these bikes, the folks that when you say here’s a hand up, you’re saying you’re worth extending the hands to, to help with. You’re worth investing in and we trust you, and we’re going to invest in you. And you see the benefits of that investment. And I think when we talk about rural communities, unfortunately, sometimes, if we are stuck in the negative cycle story, we miss that opportunity. That if we, there can be amazing successes here, if we are willing to invest and believe in the resources we have here and believe in the people. And you have tons of amazing stories that point to that.

Lisse Regehr 52:23
I’m very lucky to be able to work here. And it truly is, it’s one of those jobs you’re never bored in. It’s an organization I don’t think you can ever be bored in. And the work can be so hard sometimes. And community work is hard, because you do get people who don’t get it or who don’t like the one project you’re working on out of the 50, right. But at the end of the day, I can look back, I’ve been here since 2014, and see from 2014 to now, in this nine year period, how much has changed in a positive way in our community. And I can be so proud of that. And I love, like my mom said something earlier this week while I was traveling, she’s like, “I’m so proud of everything you do.” And she’s like, “I see you.” And that matters, right?

Wyatt Beckman 53:08
If we think about where we’re at now, and there’s already been a bunch of growth, what will it take to go from where we’re at now to that goal?

Lisse Regehr 53:19
Oh, wow, it would take a lot. It’s difficult, again, just the barriers that we are up against. There’s a lot there. But in my mind, we’re not going to see it in my lifetime, right? This takes generations of people coming behind the current staff that’s here, the team that’s here, and saying, “We believe in your vision, too.” You fought the good fight, and you made some really good progress. And now we’re going to come up behind you and we’re going to fight the good fight. And then, they’re going to come up behind them and they’re going to fight the good fight. And what does the good fight look like? It looks like, how how do we create housing. It looks like, how do we ensure that we have proper access to health care? We’re two hours from every metropolitan area. That creates problems, right? It’s how do we make sure people can get where they need to go? Or that we have the specialist here in our community? How do we continue to create quality of life amenities? How do we continue to create schools that have teachers that inspire our children? One of the biggest things that we fight is we want our kids to get educated and whatever, whether it’s a four year, a two year, an eight year, I don’t care what it is. We want you to be educated. We also want you, like, if that education doesn’t occur here in our own community, we still want you to come home. Go out and explore the world and learn all the great things that are out there because we need you to bring those ideas back. And then come back and tell us how it can be done. And how you’ve seen it done. Because people who never leave are often the ones who say no, it can’t be done, it’s never been done, and it can’t be done. So I need people to come back and say, “No it has been done. I’ve seen it and it’s been awesome and we can be awesome doing it here too. And it will benefit this community.” And so one of the things I’m so proud about with this team at Thrive is we’ve been able to bring so many people either back home or back to their region, or here for the first time, who are like, “Wow, I never thought I would want to be here. But this is pretty cool.” And so that’s what we’re fighting for is how do we, how do we get these people back. And so then, the more we bring younger people back, the more they continue this work.

Wyatt Beckman 55:26
Talk about learning from travels, learning from opportunities elsewhere. I’m excited to see how Thrive Kansas has an opportunity to do that, even within Kansas, and I hope folks across Kansas and beyond hearing some of the very real challenges, but the very real successes here, can say to themselves, “Well, we could do that here too.”

Lisse Regehr 55:54
Yes. And that’s exactly what we want. We want people to know they can do that. And one of the things that I was taught with Thrive Allen, like the day I got brought on was, you know, our job is to create a culture shift from “tomorrow will be worse than today,” which is what so many rural communities have seen, is that generations of decline, 100 years of decline in their community, to “tomorrow will be better than today.” And we have been fighting for “tomorrow will be better than today.” And I think when you look in Allen County, you can look at the work being done in Humboldt to revitalize Humboldt, you can see the work being done on the Iola downtown square with people moving back and bringing new businesses in in both of those communities. And we want to see that shift into the eastern side of the county as well. And then you could just feel it right with the state park and the optimism and the hope that that brings. So tomorrow can be and will be better than today. And I want all of our rural communities to feel and know that tomorrow can be better than today.

Wyatt Beckman 56:57
Well, I had a blast in this conversation. Thank you so much for sharing about your story, about Thrive Allen County. And it was so great to get to come here to this beautiful building and see. And thanks, again, for the conversation.

Lisse Regehr 57:13
Well, thank you for honoring us with your time and with your audience. It means a lot. And I agree this is great recognition. So thank you. And it’s not every day we get to sit down and talk about all the things we’re proud about. So when I, everything I talk about, this isn’t about me. This is about my team. And this is about my community. And I’m very proud of this team. I’m very proud of this community. And, I, you know, I have the honor of getting to come to work here every day and to do this work and that’s very special. So thank you for letting me highlight it today.

Voice over 57:47
You just heard Health on the Plains. Look for new episodes twice per month. Follow us on social media, and continue to listen to the latest episodes wherever you regularly listen to podcasts. Learn more at Thanks for listening.

Transcribed by

Health on the Plains Production Team

Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H., C.H.E.S., Host

Theresa Freed, M.A., Producer, Editor

Emma Uridge, C.H.E.S., Field Producer, Coordinator

Stewart Cole, Editor, Graphic Designer

About Kansas Health Institute

The Kansas Health Institute supports effective policymaking through nonpartisan research, education and engagement. KHI believes evidence-based information, objective analysis and civil dialogue enable policy leaders to be champions for a healthier Kansas. Established in 1995 with a multiyear grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, KHI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization based in Topeka.

Learn More About KHI