The 2009 merger of Chelsea Community Hospital with the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System brought an unexpected thank-you gift to area residents: a staggering $25 million was set aside in a perpetual fund to improve their health and wellness. The private, nonprofit Chelsea-Area Wellness Foundation has been entrusted with the funds and is making big plans for how to spend them in the school districts of Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Grass Lake, and Stockbridge. Meantime, local groups are scrambling to get a piece of the pie—with up to a half million a year earmarked for the communities.

The foundation granted thousands of dollars in 2010 to fund programs including a Dexter community garden, nutritious food for families at a Stockbridge community outreach center, and a Chelsea race that benefited a free health clinic. Larger grants in the tens of thousands have gone to create a three-loop walking trail in Chelsea, to seed money for improving the athletic booster facility in Manchester, and most recently to fund a Safe Routes to School coordinator for Chelsea, Dexter, and Manchester.

“These projects, though all worthwhile, caused our grants committee to ask if funding in isolation really will allow us to have the impact we want to have to create a culture of wellness,” says foundation executive director Amy Heydlauff.

“The pattern was there really was no pattern [to the grant requests],” adds Pat Conlin, who is grants committee chair, is a member of CCH’s board of trustees, and served as CCH board president during the merger. “This discovery dovetailed with our ongoing board discussions about how best to create lasting change in our communities, and we decided we needed to be bolder.”

The board determined that it was time for an extreme makeover—of the health and wellness variety—in each town. The foundation will choose one or two towns to start, but all will eventually be part of this new comprehensive wellness initiative (the project’s website is ­ Heydlauff will be talking to community groups and surveying them in the next few months to determine each town’s readiness to launch the initiative. “There’s no magic to being first or second,” she stresses, because there’s enough money to help each community.

“We think our program could be the first of its kind that’s long-term—at least for a rural area—in the United States,” says Heydlauff. She has just returned from Albert Lea, Minnesota, where she met with coordinators of the Vitality Project—a ten-month pilot program highlighted in the best-selling book The Blue Zones—aimed at improving the health and increasing the life expectancy of that town’s 18,000 residents.

She saw lots of walkers in Albert Lea, plentiful information in restaurants and grocery stores to help people make healthier food choices, and “walking school buses” and “bike trains” that helped kids stay active and get to and from school safely with help from adults. Community gardens, wellness workshops, cooking classes, and visits from national experts and authors also were part of the initiative.

All of these are possibilities for the five school districts. Heydlauff says the foundation will look for activities that get residents to eat better, move more, avoid unhealthy substances, and make healthy connections with others. Though part of Albert Lea’s effort revolved around urban planning ideas that aren’t very useful in the rural areas the schools serve, Heydlauff thinks country dwellers bring other strengths—such as gardening—that can be shared with the urban population. She says she wants to “bring everyone to the table” to find solutions to challenges such as launching walking programs in more remote areas.

An overarching goal is to make lasting changes that benefit residents’ health and wellness—and there’s definitely room for improvement. Statistics from the past decade demonstrate that the five towns are worse off than the rest of Washtenaw County in the areas of weight, exercise, and healthy eating habits. In 2005, the percentage of adults who reported themselves as overweight or obese in western Washtenaw was up to 13 percent higher than in other parts of the county.

It’s a big challenge, but the foundation has the money to make a difference. Albert Lea’s initiative made a big national media splash by spending about $750,000 in one year. But it served a much smaller area—the Chelsea foundation’s initiative will affect about 47,800 people—and can’t match the local project’s long-term resources. That’s because the $25 million principal from CCH has been invested—projects will be funded from the investment income.

Along with the millions for an endowment, the foundation also received the Chelsea Wellness Center, which is located inside the hospital, and a 50 percent stake in the Silver Maples retirement community. And although Pat Conlin says these types of gifts are not unprecedented for a health-care project on the scale of Chelsea’s, there are still a lot of people watching to ensure they are gifts that keep on giving.

The money allotted each year will be up to the foundation board. “We’ll determine what the right amount is for each community each year, not necessarily spending the same amount in each community—all within our foundation policies and the law,” explains Heydlauff. The foundation will measure its progress using the county’s Health Improvement Plan survey and other studies.

Having a coordinated effort among individuals, nonprofits, businesses, the school system, and government makes a lot of sense, according to Larry Cobler of Dexter, who is chairperson of the new comprehensive initiative and also serves as president of Dexter’s school board. “There’s huge potential to prevent disease, increase life expectancies,” says Cobler—”and, from an economic standpoint, make these communities even more enticing places to live.”

This article has been edited since in appeared in the Winter 2010 Community Observer. Prior-year references have been updated.