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BY KARREY BRITT | Communications Coordinator
This year’s Douglas County Health Champions Linda Cottin and Marilyn Hull have several things in common. They enjoy helping people in need, they are passionate about improving the health of the community, and their passion stems from personal experiences.
Cottin, who owns and operates Cottin’s Hardware & Rental with her husband, Tom, has played an instrumental role in starting school gardens, a weekly farmers market at her store and a Farm-to-School program at Cordley Elementary School. Hull, program and communications officer for the Douglas County Community Foundation, co-founded the LiveWell Lawrence coalition, serves as chair-elect of the coalition’s Healthy Built Environment work group and also chairs the Lawrence Pedestrian-Bike Issues Task Force.
“They’ve touched thousands of lives through their efforts to champion healthy living in our community,” Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department Director Dan Partridge said. “They are true heroes, and I hope residents will join us in thanking them for their efforts.”
Cottin and Hull will be recognized during a community breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. April 8 in the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine St.
While at work, Cottin listens to her customers’ concerns and needs, and then, with her big heart, she does what she can to help them.
“If I can connect the dots, I’m going to do it. It’s just the right thing to do,” Cottin said.
The farmers market held each Thursday at her store began because of a request from a couple who lived near the store and grew a garden. The couple asked whether Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers could pick up their bags of produce in the winter at the store. Cottin agreed. Then, the hardware store customers wanted to know if the couple’s produce was for sale.
Cottin said the customers’ demand for fresh produce is what spurred her to start the farmers market in 2008. It began as a summer market in the store’s back parking lot with a handful of vendors. Since then, it has grown into a full-fledged party with live music, chess matches and at least 20 vendors selling local produce, hot food and Free State Brewing Co. beer. In the winter, there’s a weekly market held inside the store with about 10 vendors. Jaime Knabe, of Country Road Farms, is one of them. She is grateful to be able to sell her meat products throughout the year.
“Linda works so very hard to make sure that we have tables, chairs and whatever we need to be able to come here,” Knabe said.
Cottin also helped support the implementation of Market Match, a local program designed to make healthy foods at farmers markets more affordable to residents participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps. The program matches up to $25 per week in SNAP benefits. So, a family spending $25 in benefits would receive $50 in tokens to use at the farmers market. Cottin described the program as a win-win-win. It generates more sales for local farmers, keeps dollars in the community and provides nutritious food for families.
In 2010, Cottin’s dream of providing a local, healthy lunch to an entire school became a reality. She applied for her first grant and received $500. Then, she brought together a group of friends that included local chefs and farmers. They provided more than 350 students at Cordley Elementary School with a lunch of beef and vegetarian lasagna, salad and a strawberry oatmeal crisp. The students made the noodles from local flour and picked the strawberries from a local field.
“It was incredible,” Cottin said. “The kids ate everything. We actually ran out of salad stuff. I remember them running down the hallway saying, ‘We want Farm-to-School every day.’”
In 2010, West Middle School began a garden project that thrived. Cottin said parents, students, teachers and neighbors wanted to start a similar project at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, which is near her store. So Cottin spearheaded the effort that included finding volunteers to help with the labor, soliciting donations and figuring out how to make the garden sustainable. Today, Central’s garden is thriving, too, and it has expanded to nearby elementary schools. Cottin continues to help raise money, organize volunteers and donate items such as seeds, soil and tools.
“The entire reason Central has the amazing garden that it does is because of Linda,” said Laura Leonard, who works at Central Middle School and is the garden coordinator. “She brought a large number of community members, ideas, materials and moral support to make our garden grow. One of the great things about Linda is she is an amazing community resource. She builds great relationships, and she’s able to connect them.”
Cottin said the connection she has made with local, healthy foods during the past decade has been a personal godsend.
“I used to live off sugar,” she said. “I didn’t eat anything that was green. I never ate any of this stuff growing up.”
She said she had digestive issues and dealt with discomfort and pain. She decided to change her diet as she got involved in the activities. She tried her first locally grown strawberry at the Farm-to-School event.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she said with enthusiasm. “It was a flavor I had never had in my life.” Now, she consumes lots of local vegetables like kale, arugula, spinach and turnips.
“I apologize to my kids every day for not having fed them the right way growing up,” she said. “What I lacked as a mother when they were younger, I now want to share with all of the other parents who may not have had the opportunity to learn about fresh, local food just like I didn’t at the time.”
Crystal Hammerschmidt, Farm-to-School coordinator for Lawrence Public Schools, said Cottin also is having an impact on youth in this community.
“Gardens are a breeding ground for new ideas, relationships and fun,” she said. “With Linda’s support, we are able to teach our students to observe, nurture and be resilient in a rapidly changing food system and learn how to make healthy choices for themselves.”
Cottin also is known for her compassion. Her son, Mick Cottin, said she borrowed his car a few years ago on Christmas Eve to help a displaced elderly woman, who suffered from mental illness, find a warm place to stay as the temperatures dropped to single digits.
“Without hesitation, my mom will care for anyone who crosses her path and accepts her help,” he said.
As program and communications officer at the Douglas County Community Foundation, Hull is known for having a finger on the pulse of community health. That’s because she works closely with a wide range of nonprofit leaders who seek funding to help improve the well-being of residents. These agencies are helping residents who face hunger, domestic violence, mental illness and access to health care.
“People are struggling, and it’s all ages and it’s all races and it’s different education levels. We are trying very hard in this community to help as many people be as well as they can be, but we fall short every day,” she said with emotion. “Every day, we fall short, and I’m reminded of that on a regular basis.”
In 2008, the Douglas County Community Foundation received a major grant from the Kansas Health Foundation to begin an initiative to reduce chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke by promoting healthy eating, active living and tobacco-free lifestyles. It was Hull’s job to launch the initiative, and she did it within a year.
The initiative, called LiveWell Lawrence, has grown from a coalition of 16 members to one with more than 150 members. She served as the first chair of the coalition, and since then has served the coalition in a variety of capacities. She currently is chair-elect of the coalition’s Healthy Built Environment work group, which works with policymakers to increase and improve trails, sidewalks, public transit, parks and other community resources.
Hull said the LiveWell coalition has exceeded her early expectations. Among LiveWell’s accomplishments are creating an annual WorkWell Lawrence symposium, launching Lawrence’s first sustainable school garden, forming a Lawrence Complete Streets advocacy group, establishing a Safe Routes to Schools movement, and creating a Tobacco-Free Living work group that advocates for policies such as tobacco-free parks.
“It makes me really proud and happy to walk into a LiveWell meeting and see people whom I’ve never met leading a health initiative," she said. "That somehow this movement has connected people, and they have these common goals."
Since LiveWell Lawrence was founded, more than $2 million in grant funding has flowed into Douglas County to support the coalition’s work.
“It was Marilyn’s vision, leadership and energy that brought many of the health providers in Lawrence together to form LiveWell Lawrence,” said Lawrence-Douglas County Health Board member David Ambler. “That organization has truly made a difference in improving the lives of many of our citizens.”
When the first Douglas County Community Health Plan was being established, Hull agreed to chair the work group that tackled the goals and strategies to improve access to physical activity. The five-year plan was adopted in 2013 by Douglas County and all of the cities within the county as a document that would help guide their decision-making.
In 2015, Hull was selected by the Lawrence City Commission to chair a 10-member Lawrence Pedestrian-Bike Issues Task Force. The task force consists of members who have different backgrounds — a competitive bicyclist, a senior who uses a walker and a parent whose child walks to school.
“We had a lot of work to do to hear everyone’s perspective and understand it, and then take these expressions of need and somehow form them into a cohesive set of recommendations that we could give to the city commission,” Hull said. In February, the task force finished a report that encourages development of pedestrian and bike infrastructure. The report will be presented to the city commission.
In recent years, Hull also has served on a Coordinated School Health Advisory Group, the board of The Community Mercantile Education Foundation and the board of The Community Mercantile.
Nancy O’Connor, director of education and outreach at The Community Mercantile, said she admires Hull’s dedication to creating healthy changes in our community that are sustainable and systemic.
“She has a vision for our community that looks beyond isolated events and programs. She helps create systems that support healthy lifestyle choices now and 10 years from now,” O’Connor said.
Hull said her drive to work on community health initiatives begins with her own personal health.
“People tend to make an assumption that if you are a health nut then you are healthy, but in my case that’s not entirely true,” she said.
Hull is a breast cancer survivor. She has suffered from depression and anxiety. She is now coping with interstitial cystitis, a rare chronic condition that can cause bladder pressure, bladder pain and pelvic pain. Hull said she has to be careful about what she eats and drinks, and she has to be mindful about exercising.
“I’ve been in a bad place, and I don’t want to go back there,” she said. “If you see me out there walking or riding my bike, it is part of my personal health therapy plan.”
Still, Hull considers herself lucky because she has a lot of advantages that other residents don’t have: a job, health insurance, a loving spouse and family and supportive friends.
“Those people who don’t have that kind of support,” she said with emotion and then briefly pauses. “They are the ones that keep me going. I’m fighting for them.”