In 2021, three community leaders from rural Minnesota were selected as the inaugural cohort for Project REACH (Rural Experts Advancing Community Health), a joint initiative of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Program through the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
Project REACH is a year-long program that provides diverse community leaders in rural Minnesota with health policy and leadership training. Participants learn to frame health policy challenges and how to communicate effectively with state legislators and other policymakers. Participants identify local challenges, build leadership skills to address the challenge, and develop and share a policy proposal with relevant decision makers. Throughout the program, participants have access to mentorship from University of Minnesota faculty and staff.
Leah Lehtola, one of the three inaugural members of the Project REACH cohort, is a community health leader from Montevideo, Minn., and serves as CCM Wellness Center and Community Health director. She uses her role to proactively reach members in the community to address physical health as well as social health through coordinated programs and events. For the past seven years, Lehtola has shown a dedication to her organization and the community through various organizational health-focused initiatives. Lehtola holds a bachelor of science degree in community health education from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
As part of her work with Project REACH, Lehtola created a policy proposal that focused on addressing the high rate of suicide ideation among 11th grade females in Chippewa County. To address this problem, Lehtola proposed the creation of a community mental health coalition that would include representation from Chippewa County, the City of Montevideo, CCM Health, and Montevideo Public Schools. She also proposed the integration of school-based mental health services into Montevideo Public Schools. Over the course of this year, she has developed partnerships with a number of stakeholders from her community to discuss this important issue, including administration, social workers, and counselors from Montevideo Public Schools, Countryside Public Health, CCM Health, Chippewa County Children's Mental Health, the city of Montevideo, Montevideo Police Department, and Minnesota Department of Health.
“Project REACH led me to connect with key stakeholders that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the push to engage with. Through these discussions, it feels as though we’ve unlocked potential for collaboration in many different areas. The experience provided me with many new skills, resources, and connections that will benefit my role for years to come. It was an honor to learn from the experts on the Project Reach team,” said Lehtola.