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Poe Center focuses on outcomes

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By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In June 2004, when Sheila Ryba joined it as CEO, the Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education was cooking.

The nonprofit, formed in 1991, had just opened a $1 million health-themed playground and was providing health-education programs to 50,000 students a year at its Raleigh facility and in schools throughout eastern and central North Carolina.

But Ryba moved quickly to shift the center’s focus, tying its future to its ability to measure its impact.

The strategy worked: The center now serves over 65,000 students a year, and has doubled its annual budget to $1.3 million and its staff to 15 people working full-time and 15 working part-time.

Annual contributions have grown to $400,000 from $150,000, mainly through corporate support, Ryba says, while operating and capital reserves also have grown, and fundraising costs and program expenses have been reduced.

Ryba’s focus on outcomes also has earned plaudits for the center, which recently was named “Most outstanding nonprofit organization” by the Triangle chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Under the leadership of Pam Cole, who preceded Ryba and served as CEO for 10 years, the center had annual budget of $627,000 and a staff of eight people full-time and five part-time.

And three years before opening its playground, the center had opened a $1 million “Cranium Connection” exhibit.

Ryba, former CEO of the American Heart Association for San Diego County in California, says she wanted to build on the work of Cole and the center’s founders.

Moving beyond programs that served students one time, Ryba says, she added “outcome-based, measurable programs that are delivered multiple times” in the schools and at the center.

She also instituted new systems to recruit board members with “influence, affluence and expertise,” and to handle the organization’s financial and human-resources operations.

To pilot the new outcomes-based approach, the center developed a new program known as “Wholesome routines.”

The three-year program, launched in 2005 and now offered in eight of the 64 counties the Poe Center serves, focuses on childhood obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

After initially testing elementary-school students on their knowledge and attitudes about health, and taking data on their height, weight and body mass, the school-based program focuses on nutrition and physical activity, and periodically measures students’ progress.

So far, students participating in the program have increased their knowledge about health by 50 percent, and their physical activities by 20 percent to 25 percent, Ryba says.

The center aims over three years to expand the program to another 10 to 15 counties, mainly in the Triad, and to develop a new program focusing on comprehensive behavioral change in the areas of drug, alcohol and tobacco prevention, Ryba says.

She says the center also expects over the next three years to increase its annual budget to between $2 million and $4 million, double its staff and increase the number of students it serves by 40 percent.

A long-term goal is to serve all 100 North Carolina counties by 2013, tailoring programs to address local needs, Ryba says.

“We’re trying to make a great organization phenomenal by increasing awareness and changing behaviors,” Ryba says, “and it’s for all the students in North Carolina.”

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