KEARNEY— Six annual Healthy Community Awards, sponsored by CHI Health Good Samaritan, will be presented at a luncheon Friday. The awards honor people who through their leadership, education and assistance make central Nebraska a healthy place to live.

The winners and their categories are:

- Advocacy — Susan Bigg

- Education — Lynn Goodell

- Leadership — Denise Zwiener

- Partnership — Kearney Animal Assisted Therapy

- Prevention — McKenna’s Rae of Hope Foundation

- Recreation — Jennifer Behlmann

Four of the winners — Advocacy, Education, Leadership and Prevention — were selected by a community advisory group, based on nominations from the public.

The winner of the Partnership award was chosen by CHI Health Good Samaritan while Kearney Park and Recreation chose the recipient of the Recreation award.

Here is a look at three of the honorees. The other three recipients will be featured in Thursday’s Kearney Hub.

2019 Healthy Community Award for Leadership:

Denise Zwiener

Nearly 30 years ago, Denise Zwiener was just out of college. Working for the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, she served as its representative for a new group focusing on the health of the community. At first, she could not understand how this group could help businesses, but she soon fell in love with the work. She saw it making a difference.

In 1999, Zwiener became the first full-time employee for the Buffalo County Community Health Partners, now Buffalo County Community Partners. The organization, one of the first of its kind in Nebraska, aimed to assess, promote and strengthen the health of Buffalo County.

Today, under Zwiener’s leadership, BCCP has 12 employees, and in the past year more than 4,000 volunteers donated 104,120 hours to the organization.

Among other accomplishments, BCCP has decreased binge drinking in teenagers by 60 percent since 2000. It helped make Buffalo County one of the first communities in Nebraska and the nation to lower the trend of obesity.

“Denise has an amazing ability to absorb information, identify challenges and connect with people to find solutions,” said Nikki Gausman, the SAFE Center executive director and BCCP board member. “Many positive changes have occurred under her leadership. Denise leads by example.”

Zwiener said, “I was born, raised and educated here. All the work we do every day has directly impacted my family. There is a reason God put me in this place.”

2019 Healthy Community Award for Recreation:

Jennifer Behlmann

Jennifer Behlmann cherishes memories of the first Special Olympics opening ceremony she attended. She was a volunteer. “It was breathtaking to watch the athletes parade in and open the games,” she said.

Now, 20 years later, Behlmann is the head of delegation for Kearney Special Olympics. She organizes athletes and coaches for practices, coordinates fundraisers, books travel arrangements, does setup and teardown at events, submits results and entries to the state organization, and much more.

“She is a selfless individual,” said Jade Brown, recreation superintendent for Kearney Park and Recreation. “She truly loves and cares for the athletes, and treats them like her own kids.”

Behlman became involved with Kearney Special Olympics when her son Dustin was in middle school. He enjoyed participating, but he struggled a bit unless Behlmann was present.

“Eventually, I decided I might as well make myself useful,” she says. “I started helping with practices and chaperoning trips to allow Dustin to participate.” That was 20 years ago. Five years ago, she took over as head of delegation.

“Her goal is that all persons with an intellectual disability have the chance to become useful and productive citizens who are accepted and respected in their communities,” Brown said.

Why does she do what she does?

Behlmann said, “Many of my athletes do not have the opportunity to participate in healthy activities on their own. Many of them cannot afford to sign up for a health club. Special Olympics allows them to practice, get exercise and be a part of things.”

2019 Healthy Community Award for Prevention: McKenna’s Rae of Hope Foundation

The McKenna’s Rae of Hope Foundation is being honored for its work to prevent teen suicide by fostering awareness, resilience and social change.

“Once you change the way the youth view mental health, it becomes the norm as they grow into adults. We want to keep the mental health topic top-of-mind,” said Todd Schirmer, the organization’s founder/director.

He said the foundation uses mental health first aid training to reduce the stigma of getting treatment for mental illnesses.

He added this effort aims to make teens more willing to seek help when they need it, and to watch out for their friends’ mental health, too. “If they reach out to a trusted adult to get a friend some help, we can save lives that way as well,” he said.

The foundation is named for McKenna Rae Johnson, a local girl who died from suicide in 2017. Schirmer is close family friends with the Johnson family. He praised the Kearney community for tackling what once was a taboo issue,

The foundation’s newest project is the #BeKind program, a partnership with Kearney Public Schools that aims to create a positive culture of kindness and acceptance. It is being launched at all levels - from elementary through high school. It comes with a curriculum and teacher in-service.

The foundation has reached more than 20,000 students across the state by funding speakers and programs on mental health. The foundation also has awarded $20,000 in scholarships in two categories - one for students entering the mental health field and one recognizing students with high character.

“We know that when people have mental health issues, they can get better if they receive proper diagnosis and help,” Schirmer said.

He added that anyone struggling with suicidal issues should contact the 24/7 South Central Behavioral Services Crisis Line at 308-237-5951.

EDITOR’S NOTE : In tomorrow’s Kearney Hub, you will read about the CH Health Good Samaritan’s Healthy Community Award winners for Advocacy, Education and Partnership.

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