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Ashley Varner: Wellness director aims to improve community health

Ashley Varner: Wellness director aims to improve community health

#jcmo Inside Business 17 in '17

October 30th, 2017 by Phillip Sitter in Business

Ashley Varner, healthy communities coordinator for Capital Region Medical Center's Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities program, works to get area residents healthy by eating right, exercising and drinking plenty of water.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Ashley Varner is a healthy communities coordinator, a position created through Capital Region Medical Center's Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities program, which is grant-funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

She is also a wellness navigator — a health coach for Capital Region's employees.

The grant lasts five years, with the aim of reducing childhood obesity in the Jefferson City community.

"We do that through environmental changes, policy changes and then programs (of) physical activity, health eating and nutrition," Varner said.

She's in her third year of those efforts.

The coworker whose position is funded by the grant works with Callaway Hills, East, South and Thorpe Gordon elementary schools in the Jefferson City Public Schools district, while Varner's projects fall under the umbrella of the wider community.

"Whenever those kiddos leave school, that's when I come into play. I'm that community person. I try really hard to make that healthy choice the easy choice," Varner said.

Some of the programs Varner has led are the Fresh Fruit for Kids program at six local grocery stores, bike lanes throughout Jefferson City, water bottle re-filling stations at local parks and pools, healthy concession stand items at Jefferson City Public Schools and Helias Catholic High School, a year-round farmers market in the works at 704 Madison St., and a proposed wellness center in Holts Summit.

"I hope that I work myself into a new job," she said of what happens once the grant's five years are up.

In the meantime, she's also involved with several local organizations. She's board president of Capital City Sustainable Foods, a board member with Working Wheels for Working Families, vice chair of the Jefferson City Environmental Quality Commission, a member of the Holts Summit Community Betterment Association, a member of the Downtown Association, a member of the East Side Business Association, involved with the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals program, and a volunteer and member at Capital City Christian Church.

She's originally from northeastern Iowa, the small settlement of El Dorado — in her words a very Norwegian, German and scenic part of the state with lots of bluffs. She's a graduate of the University of Iowa.

She's married to Josh Varner, and they have three children, ages 7, 6 and 10 months. The family lives in Holts Summit.

Q. Who has invested in you and your career?

A. "(Dagmar Munn) helped me spread my wings and experience getting out and speaking to different companies about different health topics, doing employee wellness for the hospital employees." Munn was her internship advisor in her last semester at the University of Iowa, when she interned at St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

"She, to me, was the epitome of health and wellness," Varner added of Munn's impression on her. She said Munn also inspired her to get certified to teach yoga.

Munn hired her after the internship, and she worked with her for three years thereafter.

Varner also credited her spouse's support: "He is my biggest cheerleader. He's my rock. He's the one that compliments me every morning, and I wouldn't be able to do it without him."

"Ultimately, the gifts that I've been given to be who I am and do what I do in my job are all God-given. I think everybody has a sense that there's a bigger, it's bigger than just you. They find that their sense of purpose maybe within their faith, and I certainly find that (in faith)."

She also credits the community partners she works with, because of all the collaboration that has to successfully come together for her to do what she does. "They shape me just as much as I shape the community."

Q. What choices have you made to invest in yourself and your own success?

A. "Sleep is one of my very top priorities in my life. Making sure I put in good healthy nutrition, that is food that is highly locally sourced, that is organic-quality, that is — what I put in matters to what I get out.

"I'm also constantly looking at what other opportunities can I get involved in. Can I step outside of my comfort zone and get involved in sitting on a board, sitting on a different commission. How can I help the community in a different aspect that I have never been privy too. Maybe this is a new learning experience."

However, "investing in yourself, there's a really important piece here, and that is what are your personal limits and boundaries. We all have a lot on our plates. We always want to do more, be more, be the best, but there is a really important place for the word 'no' in our lives, and I think investing in yourself is being able to know those limits."

Q. Of what professional achievement are you most proud?

A. She was recognized by Jefferson City Magazine's "Ones to Watch" last year. "I was very humbled by that," she said.

She's also proud of a new block of sidewalk on Broadway Street near South Elementary School, intended to provide safe passage for school children who had otherwise had to cross a street on a hill where drivers couldn't necessarily see them. Varner worked on that initiative for two years and successfully advocated for the city to fund the project that included removal and rebuilding of retaining walls on nine properties, gaining easements, bringing utilities to code and updating a sewer issue.

Q. What do you see as the biggest issues facing women in the workplace?

A. "Women are truly the keepers of an insane amount of information for their families" — making sure everyone stays caught up on their homework and on their school schedules, monitoring children's health, taking on their responsibility of re-arranging their schedules to accommodate visits to doctors. Juggling all that "at times can be a detriment to a woman's career."

She also noted the wage gap between women and men in take-home pay, roughly 71 cents on every dollar a man makes, she cited.

Q. What drives you most in life and in your career?

A. "If I let my ego take over, I would say it's my desire to provide for my family. It's my desire to provide, it's my desire to change, it's my desire for success and acknowledgment, accomplishment, to be liked. But I truly think my desire that helps me in my personal life is all God-given. I think that I really have to come back to (that as) my foundation."

"It's to help others help themselves," she said of her drive in her professional life.

"I just really have a huge heart for those of us that don't have as many means to be able to thrive in our lives, and (I) feel pretty passionate about giving tools and resources to that population," be it access to food, reducing transportation barriers or child care and education.

Q. What advice would you give to a woman entering the workforce?

A. "Be patient with the process of your career, in the sense of be open-minded. Know that the valleys will come and that the hills will come after those valleys. Know to be flexible, yet assertive. Know when to push, and know when to pull. And being patient with the process may mean even if you get looked over for a promotion the first time, you don't stop trying to get the promotion the second time. Never grow faint and weary of trying to grow and become more within your career. Don't be afraid to say yes to something outside your comfort zone because that opens doors, if at the very least you're growing relationships.

"I would also say strive for balance in the sense of your personal happiness and satisfaction, and finding the purpose of doing the work that you do. Life is too short for you to go to a job every day that you don't feel fire for. Find out what your gifts are, and use them.

"Things happen, and sometimes you have to take jobs you don't want until the job you do want comes along, but you never stop trying to stoke the fire."

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