Building a Culture of Community Health & Wellbeing in Oxford County

10 years ago former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, who also led a commission on the future of health care in Canada, spoke at the Association of Ontario Health Centres (AOHC) conference about how the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) can serve as a powerful tool to shift the conversation about health and wellbeing. The talk inspired AOHC members to use the CIW to support their work in addressing the broad determinants of health. As a result of this work with the CIW, the connections to community health and wellbeing are becoming better understood along with the value of community belonging in particular. Among the early adopters was Oxford County Community Health Centre (formerly known as Woodstock and Area CHC) located in southwestern Ontario. Read on to learn about how Oxford County is building a culture of community health and wellbeing.

Change takes time
In 2016, nearly 10 years after Roy Romanow spoke at the AOHC conference, Oxford County made a significant commitment to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). They were looking for a way to measure and improve quality of life in Oxford. The CIW provided the framework and survey to create a baseline that would inform their vision of a sustainable community that balances community, environmental and economic interests. The Future Oxford Community Sustainability Plan sets out 70 distinct actions that will achieve specific goals and targets for Oxford's future. Based on information gathered from just over 11,000 households, the CIW Community Wellbeing Survey helped to create a snapshot of overall wellbeing of Oxford County residents. This information will inform investments and measure progress on their sustainability plan over the next decade. 

“With the results of the Wellbeing Survey at hand, this vast baseline of information regarding the quality of life of Oxford residents allows us to celebrate and build upon those areas reported to be very positive, and to clearly recognize areas of life satisfaction that are priorities for improvement,” says Randy Peltz, Executive Director, Oxford County Community Health Centre (CHC). “In moving forward, there are teams of community volunteers and stakeholders across a variety of sectors looking closely at what the Wellbeing Survey is telling us about the dependency between Community vitality, Environmental responsibility, and a thriving Economy, as outlined in the Future Oxford Sustainability Plan. Together, we will continue our efforts to create change, and measure improvement, with a vision of a second CIW survey in several years’ time.”

Oxford County’s knowledge about the CIW can be traced back to when the new Woodstock and Area CHC began to share information about their model of community health and wellbeing with the community. Their first annual general meeting included a presentation on using the CIW as a tool for community engagement and partnership building.

Oxford County did not have a CHC and most people did not know what a CHC was. The Board of Directors was composed of representatives from key Oxford agencies who had supported the need for a CHC and who were involved in learning more about the CHC Model of Health and Wellbeing.

“The creation of the community health centre in 2010 provided an opportunity to lend community development support to initiatives that were already underway with key agencies and the community such as: United Way Oxford, Canadian Mental Health Association, Community Employment Services, Public Health, Fusion Youth Centre, the Oxford County Social Services Department and Thames Valley Addiction Services,” Says Cate Melito, former Executive Director of Woodstock and Area CHC.

Together, these organizations worked with a common commitment to strengthening quality of life in Oxford. Each organization had similar outlooks, and worked together frequently on a number of key community initiatives. A critical success factor for growing a culture of health and wellbeing was having the vision and support of senior staff at Oxford County, particularly public health and human services. What’s more, the CIW’s eight domains of wellbeing aligned well with the strong philosophical commitment in the local government to improve quality of life of all Oxford residents.

Collaboration built trust
The CIW provided a foundation and supported collaboration among Oxford County agencies and the County to build community wellbeing. There was a lot of interest in working together to promote community health and wellbeing as evidenced by the redevelopment of the Oxford Social Planning Council in 2011. Reflecting on the work, here’s what some of the partner agencies had to say about the collaboration.

"Since 2012, I have noticed much more meaningful collaboration with our partners. Having common wellbeing goals, and shared language that describes what we mean by wellbeing has allowed us to articulate and plan for joint events and projects. Agencies have started moving toward understanding the needs of our community, and meaningful collaboration assists with that movement." - Ashley Farrar, Executive Director, Oxford Social Planning Council.

"We have seen a willingness for groups to work more closely together, including organizations that historically did not partner with others. We have seen an increased understanding of the connections and the complexities of local citizens. We have more common language and existing partnerships have become deeper. These changes were gradual and are often only recognizable when you reflect back on how things were compared to how they now are…We've started to see a shift from an illness/problem model to a wellness model.”  - Kelly Gilson, Executive Director, United Way Oxford.

“There has been a change in the way we do things, new ways of working with more of us working to provide integrated services with a customer focus. Our organizations are working together in different ways to get to the goals. There’s a lot more collaboration and coming together on common issues. You raise an issue and people get on board. We’ve developed more relationships and trust. Trust is key, the relationships are deeper.” - Mike McMachon, Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Assocation Oxford County.

A focus on belonging
The shared commitment to building a sense of belonging in the community has its roots in the work of Woodstock and Area CHC. Management and staff shifted their planning to integrate the CIW framework into their work and, in 2012, mapped every program into the CIW domains. Additionally, staff made conscious efforts to bring a sense of belonging to the centre and to strengthen sense of belong when clients accessed services at the centre. 

“There was a big shift in intentionally creating a place of belonging (not just welcoming) at each access point of the health centre,“ says Trevor McLellan, Community  Outreach Worker, Woodstock and Area CHC.

 In 2013, the centre created a CIW wellbeing calendar and distributed it to 6000 people. They did this for two years. “The CIW was a tool that tied it all together. It gave us a common language and framework,” says Jenilee Cook, Community Outreach Social Worker at Woodstock and Area CHC, who has also been supporting an initiative that is building higher levels of community belonging in the county.

The “You Belong” movement grew out of a community initiative, quickly went viral and took on a life of its own. Posters, candy grams, scarf bombing, share a chair, and smile and say hello challenges are just some of the activities that have engaged residents.

“There has been a noticeable shift in the sense of belonging in Woodstock over the past few years,” says Jenilee Cook . “People are becoming more engaged. A fundamental part of the change is the fact that it is not agency-driven.  Events and projects are community-based without credit being given.  The term 'secret change agent' was coined as a way to give credit to the people who know they are doing good work in the community, without making it about individuals or agencies. Even our Mayor (Woodstock) refers to himself as a Secret Change Agent.”  

According to Ashley Farrar of the Oxford Social Planning Council, there has been a real change in the respect that agencies show community members who are advocating for change. The Poverty Action Coalition provided safe spaces for people to speak about the relationships between the various CIW domains (e.g. how living standards make it difficult to increase community vitality or democratic engagement) and the fundamental need to feel valued and accepted.  “I have observed various community members feeling more empowered to speak about their stories,” adds Ashley Farrar, Executive Director of the Oxford Social Planning Council.

There is a lot of positive change happening in Oxford.

Download the placemat to learn more about the Oxford Community Wellbeing Survey and what it reveals about community wellbeing. Or view the full Oxford County Community Wellbeing Survey report at