A spunky woman well into her 70s, Karon Tyler has an energy level that surpasses many, despite health challenges and a recent motor vehicle accident. Karon is one of the Healthy Hill Initiative’s Resident Health Advocates and takes great joy in connecting Old Hill residents to numerous health-related activities, community events and advocacy work happening in the neighborhood.

“Sometimes you have to share a piece of your own struggle to help people understand that they can do this too,” said Karon, who has mastered the art of gentle persuasion.

Funded by the BUILD Health Challenge, Baystate Better Together Social Impact Grant and Trinity Health’s Transforming Communities Initiative grant, the Healthy Hill Initiative (HHI) is a collaboration of agencies that include Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, the Old Hill Neighborhood Council, the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and Partners for a Healthier Community and others working to improve the health and wellbeing of Old Hill.

Along with neighborhood walking groups and healthy living workshops, HHI’s programmatic activities include outings held a few Saturdays a month at Donna Blake Park., a small neighborhood green space situated between two affordable housing units on Pendleton Avenue.

At the Let’s Play days, Karon is as effective at connecting with neighborhood youth, as she is with her senior peers. She has forged a special bond with a young girl named Karolyn, who she met at the first Let’s Play day in October 2016.

Karolyn, a shy 12-year-old who admitted to not liking exercise very much, is one of more than two-dozen youngsters who regularly attend the activities. At the first Let’s Play, Karolyn chose to watch the other children from the sidelines, despite the urgings of Way Finders staff and Karon to join in.

Fast forward to a recent Let’s Play activity this spring, the first time back to the neighborhood park after a winter that forced numerous cancellations, Karon and Karolyn reconnected with smiles and laughter. The two had crossed paths a few times over the winter at HHI’s Healthy Living workshops held monthly at a neighborhood school. Karolyn had convinced her mother to bring her and her brothers to the monthly workshops that explored a variety of topics such as how to eat healthy, good oral health and asthma management.

On this play day, Karon and Karolyn talked again. The conversation was more familiar and comfortable.

 “If I could do it, I would,” Karon said to Karolyn, who was resistant to walking across the slack line mounted between two trees. Karon waved her cane as proof she couldn’t climb on the line. Her gentle persuasion and more encouraging words to young Karolyn seemed to work. Karolyn climbed on the slack line, gripped ski poles for support and proceeded to walk. Though she fell off a few times, Karolyn re-mounted the line, with Karon on the side. Karolyn eventually made her way across and was greeted by cheers from Karon and others standing by.

Karon said she sees a “different” Karolyn; a young woman who is more engaged and has started taking a leadership role by helping to set up the tables and chairs, and recruiting other children from the housing complex to come out and play.

Karolyn said she can tell she is changing as well. Always the first to arrive at Let’s Play now, Karolyn said the activities have given her an opportunity to not only play, but also to connect. “I come to see you all and I come to help,” Karolyn said. “Also, sometimes it’s hard to be healthy. But here, we get to play. It’s fun and it’s right here in my own (neighborhood) park.”

Karon and Karolyn’s connection embodies the true spirit of engagement fostered by the Healthy Hill Initiative – a movement that seeks to build community and promote healthy lifestyle choices.

“We all need to be able to step up and step out to make someone else feel comfortable, to encourage them, and to help them. I can really relate to Karolyn,” Karon said, adding that she too was once shy. “I was just like her back in the day. What it took for me to come out (my shell) is what I offer her, a little encouragement. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and especially the young ones.”