ODL’s Health Literacy Initiative Exceeds Expectations and Becomes a National Model

Now in its eighth year, Oklahoma’s Health Literacy Initiative is attracting almost 20,000 participants annually

Mustang Public Library’s First Tai Chi class at Mustang Town Center

It’s Thursday morning in Mustang, and the local public library is welcoming 82 participants to Mustang Town Center for the first of six classes on Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese exercise that helps people improve their balance, movement, and memory.

Leslie Gelders, Literacy Coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, is happy but isn’t surprised by the popularity of the Mustang program. 

“ODL’s Health Literacy Initiative has been growing every year, and more public libraries and adult literacy programs are joining the effort,” she said.

Oklahoma’s success with the program has attracted national attention, and Gelders has appeared on panels at national conferences to talk about the state’s efforts. 

Now, researchers from Wayne State University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of North Carolina are beginning a three-year study on health and wellness programming at small and rural public libraries in Oklahoma, Michigan, Vermont, and North Carolina, with the goal of learning how those institutions address health and wellness through public programs.

Libraries in these states are challenging traditional ideas of what counts as health literacy work, according to Assistant Professor Christine D’Arpa at Wayne State University. “This project will let us study how small and rural public libraries in four different states are developing health and wellness programs in an effort to build health literacy.”

The Shawnee Public Library hosted a showing of the documentary Bicycle Revolution followed by a conversation about making the city more bicycle friendly.

Gelders said state and national library and health organizations have been impressed with the creative ways Oklahoma’s local libraries and literacy programs have used ODL’s Health Literacy grants to promote and provide health and wellness programs and activities.

Thirty grants were awarded this fall to libraries and literacy organizations, including grants to eight new sites: Chickasha, Checotah, Choctaw, Elgin, Hennessey, Muskogee, Mustang, and Yukon.

Since the Health Literacy Initiative began in 2012, 135 grants have gone to libraries and adult literacy programs in 60 Oklahoma communities.

ODL began its statewide adult literacy project in 1984 to establish and support library and volunteer literacy organizations and reading tutors across the state. 

“Thirty-five years later, we still focus on helping adults develop their reading and writing skills so they can improve their lives,” Gelders said. “Health Literacy was another step in this process, because there are direct and indirect correlations between low literacy skills and poor health.” 

Gelders said the initiative was also a response to the state’s poor health rankings.

Oklahoma ranks 47th in the country for the health of its citizens according to the latest America’s Health Rankings from the United Health Foundation, down from 43rd during the previous year.

When the Health Literacy program began eight years ago, Gelders said the emphasis was on helping individuals understand basic health and medical information, providing contact information for local health providers, and communicating healthy habits.

“But Health Literacy activities have grown far beyond that,” Gelders said. “Thanks to the innovation and creativity of local libraries and literacy programs, we are reaching many more people than we originally estimated.” 

Gelders said Health Literacy programs are attracting both young and old. Long-time readers join adult learners, English language learners, veterans, and families to participate in a variety of activities, demonstrations, and informational sessions.

“We found there was a demand for health information and healthy activities throughout these communities,” Gelders said. “We think the partnerships with community organizations and the innovative programs attracted people of all ages and interests.” 

Ponca City Library’s StoryWalk engages participants in reading children’s books in a city park. Participants follow signs featuring sequential spreads from a children’s picture book. Pages can be changed to feature new stories and keep locals coming back for more active reading.

Last year, the 31 participating organizations hosted more than 1200 programs and classes. Topics ranged from healthy cooking to CPR to eye care. Activities included exercise and dance classes, virtual walking tours, and creating community vegetable gardens and story walks in local parks. 

Southwest Oklahoma City Public Library used Virtual Reality headsets to provide virtual trips to natural wonders and international cities for residents at a local memory care facility. Library staff then talked to the residents about their experience, initiating a pathway to conversation for those with alzheimer’s or dementia. 

Stillwater Public Library used grant funds to purchase a Charlie Cart, a mobile kitchen that is wheeled around town to provide healthy cooking demonstrations.

Gelders said plans for this new grant round are just as interesting and motivating. 

Hennessy Public Library’s Health Literacy Program includes a variety of activities, from informational sessions to yoga classes.

Hennessey Public Library will be hosting 17 different programs from October to March for the Healthy Hennessey Hero Series,” Gelders said. “Yoga classes and cooking demonstrations will be featured along with programs on how to shop for healthy foods on a budget, and how to get fit without going to the gym.”

No matter the class or program topic, Gelders said Oklahoma’s Health Literacy Initiative confirms something human beings have always known. 

“People enjoy coming together to have fun and to learn,” Gelders said. “That’s a healthy activity in itself.”

Oklahoma’s Health Literacy Initiative is funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. For additional information, call 405-522-3242, or visit libraries.ok.gov/literacy.