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Pryor, Oklahoma: A Town on the Move

11/09/2015

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The Pryor Creek Recreation Center is humming with activity at eight in the morning. Members are lifting in the weight room while a few do laps in the swimming pool, and an aerobics class is getting underway. On this day more than 120 people in the tiny community of Pryor, Okla., will use the facility. Laura Holloway chats with a few members as she heads to her office. She’s been up since 4:45 a.m. and she’s already worked out for an hour and a half in the gym. Now it’s time to get to work. The 56-year-old is director of the recreation center, a position she assumed in 2014. In large part, the changes in this town have come about due to Holloway’s diligent pursuit of a goal generated by a woman who lives almost 1,200 miles to the east. Two years after her husband took office as president, Michelle Obama announced that she would make solving the epidemic of childhood obesity her primary initiative as first lady. “When I heard her say that the next generation may be the first to not outlive their parents, I knew I wanted to do something to help,” Holloway says. “That statement challenged me.” Though the former school teacher and high school coach had never written a grant in her life, Holloway secured $1 million in federal money in 2012 to be spent over three years. With that grant in hand, she turned her focus to Pryor. She wanted to transform the health and wellness of the town and she wanted to help her friends and neighbors, but she didn’t stop to think about how difficult it might be, or how she might be doing something special. “I’m just an average person,” Holloway says, “but any one person can change the community.” Three years later, Pryor now has several programs aimed at helping its citizens stay active. Pryor is a city on the go. Named Most Innovative City by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program in November 2014, here are a handful of the initiatives Pryor has implemented.
  • A Safe Routes to School plan
  • A Walkability task force
  • A Bikeability task force
  • Installation of several pedestrian crossing signs
  • A traffic calming project
  • A Complete Streets resolution
  • A bicycle and pedestrian master plan for both the city and county
  • A community garden
Pryor has a program called Walking Wednesdays where parents drop off their elementary school children at a safe location and volunteers walk them to school. The escorts are high school kids. “It’s like a walking school bus, but without the congestion of traffic and vehicles,” Holloway explains. “Walking is a movement in our area.” All these efforts have infused Pryor with an energy that’s palpable. In 2015, the recreation center will host more than 130,000 visits, an astounding figure considering Pryor has a population of only about 9,500 people. As of this writing, Pryor is the only city in Oklahoma to be named a Let’s Move! city. Which means Pryor is setting the pace for a state that desperately needs to get healthier. “Oklahoma has serious health issues,” Holloway says, “We want to walk the walk in Pryor.” Holloway doesn’t rest as she works to help Pryor and Oklahoma become healthier. When the federal grant money expired earlier in 2015, Holloway helped to get TSET (Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust) money, ensuring that $1.5 million will be available to fund programs in Pryor for the next five years. In addition, $10,000 has come in from the Cherokee Nation and $60,000 more from a Farm to School grant. Holloway sees every dollar as an investment in the people of Pryor. “When we affect our health we impact every area of our economy,” she says.

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Several people are circling the walking track at the recreation center as Holloway pops out of her office with a banana in hand. She finds it difficult to make time for lunch because there’s so much to do. She stops to say hello to John, one of the most inspirational clients at the center. When he arrives it is with the assistance of his wife who guides him in, via his walker. A sufferer of Parkinson’s, John has batteries in his brain that help stimulate activity, and despite his physical challenges he undergoes physical therapy nearly every day. He can’t speak to the staff, but Laura likes to stop and see him, to give him the attention. Holloway implores people to be active everywhere they are, in any way they can. “We have to keep moving.” One of her favorite sayings is, “Just walk, people.” One Pryor physician told her, “You’re going to put me out of business, but you’re doing it the right way.” Her unyielding passion has earned her a reputation, good or bad depending on your perspective. When the people of Pryor see Laura, they say, “Here comes the health lady.” For Holloway, the fuel behind her drive to make an impact in her community comes from her upbringing. Her father took a job out of high school with Georgia Pacific where he worked his way up to a supervisor position. “My dad had a great work ethic and he encouraged me to always work hard.” When it comes to the way she fosters health and wellness in Pryor, Holloway shies away from the word “compassion.” But as she speaks, she shows that the word fits. “What you see is possibility in people’s eyes. You see it in a child and also in an adult. You see the potential in people. You want to take them and develop them to their full potential. When you do these things for your community, what you’re hoping is that you’ll inspire someone else to start another spark somewhere.”

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Photo of Laura Holloway courtesy of Alliance for a Healthier Generation

Want to make an impact on your community like Laura Holloway did in Pryor? Head over to Let's Move!, a federal initiative to "raise a healthier generation of kids."Like reading about interesting Oklahomans like Laura Holloway?

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