CORRY — If you hit the second railroad track, you have gone too far.
A small driveway between the tracks in downtown Corry lead to small building. At one time, it was the railroad ticket office. Now, it’s the local site for the national organization, Blue Zones.
Three employees go to work there everyday, starting with phone and email correspondence in the morning and moving to more important appointments throughout the day, such as business pitch meetings that hopefully turn into ribbon cuttings. It sounds typical of many companies in the U.S. But this chapter offers a better way for Corry and the rest of Erie County to live.
In the early 2000s, former National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner found five places in the world where multiple people lived past 100 years of age: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra region, Sardinia; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. These five destinations had nine common traits, what Blue Zones calls “The Power 9.”
The question became, “Could these nine principles create a healthier America?” Starting with Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 2009, the organization has grown into numerous cities in the country. Corry is the 47th, thanks to sponsorships from UPMC, Highmark Health (AHN/Saint Vincent Hospital) and Corry Memorial Hospital, an affiliate of LECOM.
With the backing of those sponsors starting in 2019, Jennifer Eberlein, Shannon Wohlford and Ashley Lawson started working two years ago to offer better ways to live for citizens of Corry.
Eberlein, the Blue Zones Project-Corry community program manager, has helped multiple businesses install healthier practices at their offices to ease stress and keep employees moving, such as at D&E Machining, where a basketball hoop was installed in the parking lot for workers to play during lunch.
At Corry Counseling Services, Corry’s first Blue Zone-approved business, human resources director Denise Seib has incorporated things like standing desks, bike pedals underneath certain desks, and a Downshift room — a quiet place for employees to go if they need a mental break with calming music, if they desire.
“When we look at the Downshift room, it used to be a closet,” Seib said. “It was just a storage area, and a bunch of the staff and I said, ‘Can we use this space?’ And it works perfect.”
Wohlford, the Blue Zones Project-Corry engagement lead, has helped organize activities for residents to participate in, such as group walks, potlucks and healthy cooking classes.
“I think the cooking classes have been instrumental [in helping us reach the community],” Wohlford said. “People are being exposed to different foods, and they’re having an opportunity to try them and learn how to prepare them without making the investment… It really has set the stage for people to become more comfortable with healthier options.”
And those healthier options have made Ploss’ Lunch Box a hit since they added Blue Zone-approved meals to their menu two weeks ago. Owner Cheri Ploss has regulars asking for her new black bean burger everyday, and patrons have loved having a side of fruit and a bottle of water as the default sides.
“We knew what it was, but I wasn’t sure how we would play a part in it,” recalls Ploss. “I just thought the Blue Zone would be a very good opportunity for us to share some healthy options and some lighter options for some of our customers. A lot of them had been asking for that anyway. It’s really taken off a lot better than I anticipated.”
Lawson, the Blue Zones Project-Corry public policy advocate, has developed relationships with the local city council to implement policies that can benefit not only the health of the people of Corry but also the economy of the city itself. The promotion of Corry’s bike trails in the hills around the city was a major success during the COVID-19 pandemic, and soon, the city could see bike trails within the city.
“By Blue Zones being here and helping these initiatives, it builds our city,” said Corry City Council director of parks and properties Chelsea Oliver. “Our residents realize what a great gem this town really is, and then growing that into visitors coming and seeing how great Corry will be in the future.”
On May 25th, Erie County government announced they had been designated a Blue Zones Approved worksite, thanks to changes implemented before and during the pandemic. Eberlein led the ribbon-cutting alongside Corry mayor David Mitchell, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper and Laura Beckes, the wellness coordinator at the Erie County Department of Health.
“I just feel so good about being able to offer people a healthy choice and to make their lives better,” said Beckes. “That is what I want to do and I really believe that we achieved that, and we’re going to keep going, too.”
In the first two years, Blue Zones has connected with the over 900 people in Corry, which meets the standard they need to continue. Discussions will take place June 8th to discuss expanding into the City of Erie and throughout the county.