top of page

Champions for Change: Empowering Rural Communities for a Brighter Tomorrow

Every thriving community shares a common goal: to build a place where everyone can grow and where wellness and health are supported throughout everyday life. Initiatives led by Champions for Change stand out as their unwavering efforts have lasting impacts on their community and serve as proof of the power of small steps and community involvement.

Driving Change in Alberta’s Heartland

In the vast landscape of Alberta, rural communities are symbols of resilience and close-knit relationships. However, rural residents face challenges including limited access to essential services, a lack of recreational opportunities, and a declining population. Rural communities often have less time, funds, and staffing capacity to address rising concerns, requiring them to drive change. Through determination, innovation, and collaboration, local initiatives emerge with the goal of transforming communities into places of opportunity and well-being.

In St. Paul, Alberta, one organization is committed to transforming its community into a vibrant, inclusive, and healthy space. Champions for Change is a non-profit propelled by amazing individuals with huge hearts who want the best for their community. We met with Penny Fox, President of Champions for Change, to discuss the initiatives that they have implemented in St. Paul to keep their community engaged and empowered.

We all want a place where we can thrive and we all want to live in a community where we feel included, and we all want to live in a healthy and active community,.”Penny Fox, Champions for Change

Champions for Change focuses their efforts into three key areas: downtown revitalization, children and youth, and the well-being of community members. These three key areas became the foundation behind all their initiatives.

Action Alberta Health Initiative - Baby Steps to Cross-Country Ski Clubs

In early 2003-2004, the Action Alberta Initiative looked at ways to reduce chronic illness numbers in communities in Alberta. Chronic illnesses require ongoing management, and approximately 30% of Albertans reported having at least one chronic health issue; this rises to more than 75% if you are 65 or older. Reports developed by Alberta Health (2013) showed that in 2010, three of four chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)) had higher prevalence rates in St. Paul compared to provincial rates. As a result, St. Paul became one of the main sites for the initiative. As Penny explains, “Some things came to light and one of them was we need to be more active… but how do we get the whole community more active and healthy?” In the following years, they took the initiative to start community gardens, a cross-country ski club, and other health-promoting programs. Their efforts were successful in lowering chronic illness rates in the community, with Alberta Health comparing 132 local geographic areas and ranking each based on chronic illness (a lower rank is desirable). In 2010, St. Paul was placed 126th in hypertension, 8th in diabetes, 26th in ischemic heart disease, and 20th in COPD (Alberta Health, 2013). In 2020, St. Paul placed 20th in hypertension, 5th in diabetes, 13th in ischemic heart disease, and 24th in COPD (Alberta Health, 2022). Compared to those in other geographic areas, there is an overall improvement in St. Paul's chronic illness ranks from 2010 to 2020. Community volunteers used this momentum to form their own non-profit, St. Paul 2020, which eventually became the Champions for Change.

Champions for Change - The Path Towards Community Wellness

Champions for Change recognizes that a community’s health extends beyond physical well-being, and focuses their efforts to combine social and cultural aspects, aiming for a holistic perspective. Through partnerships with local businesses and organisations on projects meant to revive their downtown area, they have breathed new life into their community while preserving its rich and vibrant heritage. 

The revitalization journey is multi-faceted - Champions for Change included elements of local business revival, educational and cultural initiatives, and extensive community engagement. With such diverse initiatives, we were curious as to how Champions for Change engages their community, which is a critical part of fostering a shared perception of a community’s future.

Penny outlined some incredibly unique initiatives that Champions for Change has implemented in St. Paul. 

The Incredible Edible Barrels

One of the best ways to focus on community wellness and making a community healthy is by encouraging healthful foods. Incredible Edible Barrels, one of Champions for Change’s initiatives, seeks to do just that. It not only provides edible flowers, vegetables, and herbs, but also gives space for people to gather, share their knowledge, and build relationships. “Volunteers come together to plant them… we all bring our gloves, and we all get our hands dirty,” Penny shares. These barrels encourage sustainability and community resilience as the fresh produce is used by a St. Paul restaurant and people passing by. As more people learn how to grow their own food, they too can promote food security with their own gardens.

The funding of the Incredible Edible Barrels demonstrates how a community can work together to ensure initiatives like these barrels run smoothly and efficiently. To raise the visibility and accessibility of the edible plants, the barrels are placed along the walking trail of their downtown in front of these businesses. Local businesses can choose to rent barrels to be placed in front of their stores for $50.00 apiece, and these planters are subsidised through a grant from a local store, Peavey Mart. The Parks Department  distributes and loads the barrels, then waters them throughout the week while watering the hanging flowers on lampposts across the downtown area.

Another benefit of the Incredible Edible Barrels is the opportunity it provides to teach young kids and even their parents about what can be grown in the barrels. It provides an outdoor classroom. “We put tags on them so that when young kids and parents are walking or the day homes or the Boys and Girls Club, when they walk by, they stop and say to the kids “this is a tomato” and there’s a little plaque there that will say this is a tomato and this is what its used for or this is a plant that can be eaten. We see lots of moms pushing strollers… they’re doing that. They’re teaching their kids about how food is grown.” Showing what growing plants look like and making them accessible to the community introduces fresh produce early in children’s lives, and encourages parents to include more fruits and vegetables on plates at home.

Picking herbs from Incredible Edible Barrels

Public Art Pieces – purchased local pieces and banners

The heart of every rural community is a blank canvas ready to be painted with vibrant hues of creativity and history. Public art, whether murals, sculptures, or banners, plays a vital role in shaping the identity and spirit of these communities. It serves as a storyteller, recounting the history and values of a community. When asked about their downtown revitalization efforts, Penny shared that Champions for Change incorporates one piece of public art every year into their initiatives. Regional artists and local artwork are a key aspect of their downtown revitalization efforts, through which they are able to anchor a sense of connectedness within their community.

Public art serves as an important connection between the past, present, and future. By sourcing their art from regional artists and exhibiting artwork that recalls the story of their town, Champions for Change makes a timeless statement about St. Paul’s identity, resilience, and enduring spirit that thrives in the landscape of their unique community. In 2015, Champions for Change installed various large art panels in downtown St. Paul. These panels acted as a canvas for heritage, depicting generations’ stories, preserving traditions, and celebrating St. Paul’s unique history. 

Penny also shared a creative way to include the community in their public art while also showcasing the non-profits established in their community. “When you drive into town, you will see banners. They’re all different. We have a different theme and they’ve been painted by our not-for-profits. We’ve got these beautiful banners in our downtown and it’s high impact and everybody sees them, and those not-for-profits that paint them have fun doing it.”

The banners are an expression of collective identity, and the process of making and hanging them strengthens the bonds of their community. This project has given their partner organizations a chance to bring together different groups of people to collaborate on creating a unique piece of artwork. For example, Champions for Change partnered with the Boys and Girls Club in 2014, which used the project to give kids a chance to work together to create a distinctive banner that would reflect their organization. The prominent placement of these banners is crucial in reinforcing and maintaining the interconnectedness of the town and its community members, providing a strong sense of community pride, community engagement, and a shared dedication towards a common goal. 

The downtown revitalization initiatives include mosaics and murals too. When asked about their murals, Penny told us “Every time that’s done, the community takes part somehow.” They’ve had murals completed by their youth and most recently, a mural made completely by those who volunteered. These murals bring the community together, strengthen bonds, and become a piece of history.”

Human Connection - A Cornerstone for Strong Communities

From the delicious Incredible Edible Barrels to the captivating public art pieces, Champions for Change has led remarkable initiatives in the town of St. Paul. Given the impact of these efforts, we were eager to learn about the future priorities for Champions for Change.  

“In the last year, we’ve been really focused on that reconnection after COVID,” Penny explained, “I really think COVID has had a longer lasting impact than what we realized… We still need to get back into the game because there’s a lot of people that are still a little bit nervous about stepping back into all of the things they used to do. And I think we have to make sure that that fear that was created during COVID doesn’t stick around forever.”

Luckily, Champions for Change is always encouraging St. Paul residents to visit their committee with new ideas. “We’ve seen lots of people have great ideas too, but they just don’t have an organization behind it. So, they’ll come and say “Hey, you know, would Champions for Change be interested in doing this?... there’s no formal process. There’s no paperwork. There’s come to the meeting, throw us your idea, and let’s sit and talk about it, and see what happens.” Maintaining an open door and warm welcome invites diverse ideas and eager individuals to join the efforts to strengthen community ties. 

Champions for Change is an enduring, original, grassroots approach to small town revitalization. They value the input of their community members, belonging, and the health of their friends and neighbours. The Resilient Rurals team is eager to see what new initiatives emerge out of St.Paul. 


Additional Resources 

Alberta Health. (2013). Community profile: St. Paul health data and summary. In Open Alberta.

Alberta Health. (2022). Community profile: St. Paul health data and summary. In Open Alberta.

Introducing Rural Showcase...

A dynamic network of resilience leaders are working in and among rural communities across Canada. Resilient Rurals' Rural Showcase highlights the prominent champions channelling their expertise and passion to empower rural communities, advance climate adaptation and enhance the local environment.

Connect with local leaders, hear their stories and learn from their expertise.

bottom of page