In southeastern Oklahoma, Pushmataha County is a ruggedly beautiful place, and a place filled with mighty struggles.
The drive to be So Much More is an especially tough one in for the county known to locals as “Push.”
The median household income is just shy of $30,000, compared to the statewide average of more than $45,000, making Pushmataha County Oklahoma's poorest.
That lack of economic opportunity goes hand-in-hand with poor health, creating a double whammy of woe that has stubbornly kept Pushmataha County from being “So Much More.”
It's a powerfully beautiful place, and a place with powerfully perplexing problems.
Victor and Kathleen Golubowsky are staking their claim on a new restaurant, surrounded on all sides by other's dreams that bit the dust.
“Downtown is dying here and we want to do something,” Victor said.
Charmed by the mountains and trees, the couple moved to Pushmataha County from Florida nine years ago, and so cast their lot with Oklahoma's poorest, unhealthiest, county.
“I'm eating totally different, so this restaurant is gonna be totally different,” said Kathleen.
At first, I thought there was a purse slung over Kathleen's shoulder, but turned out to be a heart monitor; she'd just had a heart attack.
Thompson: “How does that guide what you're planning to do with the restaurant? The fact that you're wearing a heart monitor and you live in an unhealthy county?”
Kathleen: “Making everything fresher, healthier, using fresh ingredients instead of frozen, not frying, grilling, baking, broiling.”
Despite the good intentions, the deck is stacked against them before they serve their first meal.
“We look at this part of Oklahoma as maybe the epicenter, if you will, of public health,” said Health Department Director, Pat Fowler.
The public health workers charged with turning around seemingly insurmountable economic and cultural challenges are the foot soldiers in the battle against diminished lives and early death.
I gathered them together at the Pushmataha County Health Department to hear of their frustrations and their triumphs.
“It's costing us $169 million a year,” they said. “We take every victory we can find.”
Whenever they gather at the health department, they sit beneath a scoreboard, big and unblinking, on the wall. It reminds them every day that they're losing - 77th, dead last, the unhealthiest county in Oklahoma.
“I think you reach a point to where you want better or you don't,” said Youth Service Director, Brandy Krohn.
In a state that's among the nation's least healthy, Pushmataha County fares even worse. Its rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, smoking and obesity are far above the national, and state, averages.
Nutrition Coordinator, Amber Kent said, “Our area is considered a food desert because of the lack of access to fruits and vegetables.”
In a county of 11,000 souls that sprawls across more than 1,400 square-miles of hills and hollows, there are two grocery stores.
“Just getting to the grocery store when you have to drive 45, 50 miles just to get to a grocery store, that's a whole 'nother set of challenges,” Fowler said.
Nursing Director Betty Bailey sees all the returned government food vouchers for fruits and vegetables.
She said her clients can't compute price-per-pound at the grocery store scale and give up in embarrassment.
“Our children are the ones really suffering from this, and it's sad,” she said.
Linda Cain's job is to stem teen pregnancy. She's got a few billboards and a determination that's often chafing in the Bible Belt.
“Some teenagers are having sex and they need to be taught how to do that safely,” she said.
There are small victories, however.
Julie Staiger got a Walmart Foundation grant to teach yoga to the kids in Moyers. The schools were among the first in the state to ban tobacco 24/7. And Skoal and its free samples are gone from the annual Deer Festival, their underwriting replaced by locals.
“At the Deer Festival, it was expected that you were gonna stand in line for an hour, hour-and-a-half to get your free sample,” Dana Dunlap said.
“People don't associate spit tobacco with smoking, it's really not a tobacco product. They don't realize it's probably more harmful that smoking cigarettes, we know it is,” said Tobacco Prevention Specialist, Wendy Dewitt.
But facts are often a tough sell; after all staring straight at them, Victor's still opening his restaurant.
“I mean if you're already at the bottom, where's the next step to go, you can only go back up,” he said.
And big, unblinking, scoreboard or no, this is their home. The place, and the people, they love.
“It's our buy-in. We want to make sure we're moving the needle,” said Health Educator, Melissa Humphrey.
Pushmataha County Health Department
There is some good news for them. The day after our visit, the new rankings were published, and Pushmataha County, for this year, is now 72nd in Oklahoma for health.
If you know of someone working to make Oklahoma 'So Much More,' send an email to email@example.com.