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Leading Locally: Hickory County Community Wellness Foundation

Nestled in the rolling hills of mid-Missouri, Hickory County dates to 1845 and is home to only about 8,000 people.

Affiliate foundations

Mid-Missouri foundation focuses on health-related needs

Hickory County’s history ties to President Andrew Jackson, who was known as Old Hickory and served as president in the years shortly before the Missouri county’s founding in 1845. Its county seat also followed the same theme, being named Hermitage, just as his home was in Tennessee.

Hickory County today retains ties to its history — such as the stately brick courthouse, built in 1896 — but efforts are also underway to improve the present and future of the place near Pomme de Terre Lake.

One example is through the Hickory County Community Wellness Foundation, an affiliate of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2024, the HCCWF has distributed more than $228,904 in grants to the community and holds assets totaling $489,575 as of June 2023.

The foundation’s focus has evolved since its start, which initially centered on broad civic initiatives. Today, its primary mission is to improve the health of community members.

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Hermitage is the seat of Hickory County, and includes nods to history. An example is its courthouse, which dates to 1896.

“That’s been our focus — more of public health and wellness programs that we could establish,” says Dawn Vader, administrator of the Hickory County Health Department and vice president of the HCCWF. “We’ve gotten a lot more partnerships that way with other organizations in the county.”

“We always try to look for the health aspects,” adds Gary Edwards, president of the HCCWF. “My goal is to just try and get people out and doing something.”

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Hickory County, largely a rural place, features natural beauty in its nearly 400 square miles.

Over the years, the foundation has held annual golf tournaments to help raise money for its work, as well as 5K events and lunches organized by volunteers. It supports a “kids eat free” program to help supplement younger residents’ nutrition during summer months. There is also its Family Fun Fall Festival, which features cardboard boat races. One of its primary initiatives today is its youth soccer program.

“I got involved because of the name: wellness. Personally, I’m one for supporting physical health — adults as well as youth — but the board back then wanted to do a project just for the kids,” Edwards says of his start with the foundation, which led the start of a soccer program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“That’s built up and now we’ve included up to 12-year-olds. The program goes up and down, but I’m really happy about that because the kids that aren’t in school programs are involved in soccer.”

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Hickory County has about 8,300 residents, per 2020 U.S. Census Data. Of that figure, about 620 live in Hermitage.

Those ongoing efforts are valuable in a place — like many others — that faces health issues linked to obesity and poverty.

“When we first started the soccer program, we had a grant with the Missouri Foundation for Health to work on reducing childhood obesity in the schools, and providing stuff for them to do when they weren’t in school,” Vader explains. “Soccer was a really logical thing to get started, and for Gary, it was his passion.

“We just helped get kids signed up, helped pay for some things to get started and got the Corps of Engineers excited about it; they have helped provide space for it. And now schools are interested in having soccer fields. They haven’t done it yet, but we just keep hoping they will.”

“Just look at those little things,” Edwards says. “It’s just getting people out into the community so they can see what’s going on.”

Looking forward: Raising funds for future projects

One of the main goals ahead for the HCCWF is fundraising for a splash pad to serve younger residents.

“We’ve started working on raising funds for splashpad. It would go back there,” Vader says, pointing to area near the health department’s building. “It would be a partnership with the health department; the health department board is all for it.

“We’ve got some private donors that we’re talking to about it and then we're just trying to get other groups to want to get involved in it besides the foundation.”

Eventually, they would also like to help create a walking track for locals to use.

In their own words

Why do you serve?

“It’s not about raising money. It’s just getting people together. And to me, that’s part of wellness.”
—Gary Edwards, president of the HCCWF

“The most rewarding part of it for me is that we can establish partnerships with groups and they start doing things on their own. Then those are in line with what the health department would like to see going on in promoting better health.”
—Dawn Vader, administrator of the Hickory County Health Department and vice president of the HCCWF

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