BRATTLEBORO — Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development surely had an effect on Elisha Underwood.
"It's all about creating a culture, a healthy culture," the program manager for Windham County RiseVT and Brattleboro resident said. "Winston Prouty really instilled these values in me at an early age."
Underwood has served in the RiseVT position since January. The group is "a movement working within communities in a collective impact model to help all people focusing on families and children to embrace healthier lifestyles," according to a description. Its goal is to improve the quality of life and lower healthcare costs by providing support to individuals, schools, businesses and municipalities.
Underwood coordinates self-management programs for chronic diseases, chronic pain and diabetes. She had been on the community health team at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for three years before taking on the new job. She has selected Brookline, Guilford, Newfane, Townshend and Vernon to focus her attention on.
Her job sees her touting the importance of things like health, wellness, stress management, physical activity, nutrition, tobacco prevention and healthy social interactions through various programs and initiatives.
During a recent meeting for Building Bright Futures, a nonprofit looking to improve the well-being of young children and families in Vermont, Winston Prouty Executive Director Chloe Learey asked attendees for their earliest memory.
Underwood recalled standing in front of a hill when the center was located on Oak Street, saying, "I can do this."
"I had trouble walking," she said, having just started to come to the center after receiving six months of physical therapy at her family's home via Winston Prouty services at the time. "I was going up the hill to go sledding and I had my leg braces on and I said, 'I can do this.'"
Underwood recalled being in the classroom and having close relationships with staff members. She also remembered classmates.
Having velocardiofacial syndrome as a child, Underwood said she could not hold her head away from her shoulder and she had a cleft palate.
"It affects your heart, causes muscular weakness," she said. "People had to really concentrate on what I was saying."
A small classroom setting where other students had their own struggles created "a culture to be able to take the time and be patient" with each other, said Underwood. She started at Winston Prouty in 1989, when she was 2 , and attended up to kindergarten. She graduated in 1992 and then went to Academy School in Brattleboro, where she regularly met with a speech therapist. She had her cleft palate repaired at Boston Children's Hospital. After the surgery, she no longer needed the therapy. She was in fourth grade.
Underwood, who used to give up gym and recess to volunteer to spend time with special education students, said the culture at Winston Prouty "just naturally" followed her through life. Originally, she intended to seek a career in speech and language pathology. She later changed majors, deciding to concentrate on nutrition and prevention.
Learey said Winston Prouty no longer has physical therapists on staff but the center does connect families to needed services through its early intervention programming.
"It's really hard because we don't have a lot of them in Vermont," she said. "But that's a different story."
Learey said RiseVT encourages collaboration between organizations. Her group also promotes that line of thinking.
"I can't do it alone," said Underwood, who works with the Vermont Department of Health, 802 Quits and Blueprint for Health.
Underwood said she feels like every interaction in her life has shaped who she has become.
"I just want to help people help themselves," she said. "I couldn't climb that hill. I couldn't do it without the physical therapists, without the teachers really helping me, really helping me believe I could do that."
Underwood said the most rewarding part of her job is hearing conversations about health and wellness "emerge naturally" with families.
"I am working," she said, "to help make healthy choices the easy choices."
Learey said Winston Prouty promotes the same concept.
Underwood pointed out a phrase on her RiseVT t-shirt: "Find joy in the journey."
"We don't really want to focus on the negatives," she said. "I know it can be a struggle to make lifestyle changes. I've experienced it myself. I experience it every day."
More information about her group can be found at windham.risevt.org.
This year marks Winston Prouty's 50th year anniversary. The center is inviting all alumni and community members to a birthday party at the campus at 4 p.m. Aug. 3. The free event will include a barbecue dinner, live music by Hipfunk Associates, cupcake decorating contest, lawn games with prizes, a bouncy house, Vermont Gelato, draft beer, hay rides, and tours of the campus and center.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.