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Difference Maker: Dana Whalen

Updated: Apr 30

Making Healthy Differences 

Dana Whelan has been an Eagle County local for the past nine years, and sought out involvement with Eagle County School District (ECSD) soon after arriving to share her passion for health. Hailing from a military background, Dana served as the Chief of Health Promotion for the United States Air Force where she maximized performance of active military members and supported their families. Initially engaging as a volunteer with ECSD, Dana was quickly scouted as the District’s inaugural Wellness Coordinator thanks to her overwhelming enthusiasm for all-things-health and her zest for community collaboration. 

ECSD’s wellness initiatives began with seed funding from the Colorado Health Foundation, a catalyst for strategic attention toward various aspects of student and community wellness. From the onset, the vision was to develop a holistic wellness plan as a comprehensive guidebook to supporting the whole child. School lunches filled with fresh produce and robust employee health benefits are an integral and obvious part of this plan, yet many more facets were unveiled as Dana began facilitating a Wellness Committee comprised of ECSD employees, community partners, and parents. The Wellness Committee meets quarterly and has brought collaborative leadership to the development and implementation of the plan. “Changing processes takes time and requires relationships,” Dana describes with her contagious smile. “These relationships help maintain energy and excitement for the wellness plan. We are working to celebrate growth and successes along the way,” she continues. 

Let’s start by talking “school lunch”. As one might expect, offering healthy public school lunches that appeal to students while maintaining a dismal nutrition services budget set by the Colorado Department of Education is a challenging puzzle. Fortunately, there has been funding to offer free school breakfasts and lunches to every public school student in Colorado, regardless of their financial status. This has been relieving from an equity standpoint, with everyone eating the same meal, together. Salad bars were offered pre-pandemic and have started to re-emerge in some forms, and fruit and vegetable options are included with each lunch. The budget requires ECSD to have a set menu across all schools in the District, which can be tricky with the diverse demographics across the district and specific student food preferences. Fortunately, Dana LOVES data and is constantly analyzing information, working with the Nutrition Services team to understand what is popular and affordable. She is proud of the universal breakfast program, which offers grab-and-go options for high schoolers, a population that frequently reports not eating breakfast  or not having enough to eat at home per the local Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Some elementary schools see as many as  ½ the students eating breakfasts together each day. As Dana shares, “We are striving toward an equal playing field where everybody gets nourished and enjoys a hot breakfast together.” Dana and the ECSD Nutrition Services team are doing their best with the finite resources that are available. 

Dana has worked tirelessly on supporting District staff. With terrifying educator salary funding limitations due to the statewide education funding formula, exploring supports via health and wellness are critical. As Adele Wilson, Chief Human Resources Director at ECSD explains, “Dana has implemented staff wellness coordinators at many of our district schools. She works closely with them to create activities to get the staff involved in their wellness, whether it is a step challenge or a financial literacy seminar. She reviews the data collected from our staff biometric screenings and uses this to focus on the health areas to promote.”

Another facet of the ECSD Wellness Plan occurs outside of the school building. There is an aim to bolster supports for families through local resources. Mountain Youth works with ECSD and community partners to produce the Eagle County Resource Directory annually as a way to share all types of services- health and beyond- with the broader community. The partners are working to streamline how the Directory is organized to aid families and the “helpers”, such as school personnel, to identify appropriate services more efficiently. For example, families frequently transfer between schools and having community-wide support resources with smart ways to share information can help families navigate while alleviating duplication. 

In asking Dana what else she is proud of in the wellness work she is leading, she lights up when she shares about student and faculty voice. Student wellness coordinators are on staff at each school, earning stipends through grant funding. Student engagement is growing as well. Dana enthusiastically continues, “Berry Creek Middle School has a student wellness team who is motivated to make changes in their cafeteria. For example, students performed plate waste studies, surveyed their peers on menu preferences, successfully lobbied to  bring back  a salad bar and created a training video to help students be good stewards of the cafeteria space and salad bar.  The students also identified the need for a water bottle refill station in the cafeteria and were able to use grant funding to get one installed. .” It is incredibly impressive what a school, District and community are capable of with skills and enthusiastic leaders like Dana steering the ship!

-Michelle Harte, Executive Director

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