Shawnee's Blue Zones Project LLC announced Thursday that a lease has been signed for office space and members of the local team are already on the job.

THE ISSUE: Oklahoma is ranked as one of the worst states in the nation in overall wellbeing.

LOCAL IMPACT: The Blue Zones program — a wellbeing initiative to improve health outcomes — has estimated that the area could see $44 million in medical cost savings over the next 10 years through the program, as well as many other benefits. After launching a partnership with Shawnee's Avedis Foundation — leased office space this week and has hired a local team to begin implementation of the program.

Shawnee's Blue Zones Project LLC announced Thursday that a lease has been signed for office space and members of the local team are already on the job.

Touting three staff members so far, the project now has an office headquartered at 420 E. Main Street — which to this point has been home to Ed Bolt's business, Main St. Photo Studio & Gallery. Bolt has recently been hired as part of the local Blue Zones Project team, along with Taylor Shekarabi and Rachael Melot.

Bolt said though it's a big change for him, it just seems like a great fit. At least some of the aspects of his studio will fall by the wayside, he said.

He shared that he hasn't really been so directly involved with photography since his retirement — though it's clear he's stepped up his game regarding community involvement the past few years — hence, the Blue Zones Project appears to be a natural addition to Bolt's resume.

“It's a very community-involved organization,” he said. “It wouldn't be surprising at all if we still participate in the block parties and events in town.”

Melot, owner of Wystle, at 1725 N. Kickapoo, is taking the reins as community program director.

Also, two potential employees have been offered positions and may be on board by the end of the month, Melot said.

The handful of locals making up the team are tasked with the role of helping the community offer healthy options more readily.

They aren't left on their own. They'll have the resources and expertise of the National Blue Zones office in Nashville, that will provide support staff to help guide them as needed.

Between the data that's being collected by Blue Zones experts and analytics from a gallup study, the group is mapping out a blueprint of where Shawnee is in the realm of wellbeing.

“That will help us gauge where we're at,” Melot said. “Then, we are tasked with improvement.”

The Avedis Foundation is sponsoring the project for the next three and-a-half years, Melot said, so the local group is on a challenging timeline — working to achieve its goal within about three years.

“We want to implement positive steps toward overall wellness in our community — like lowering obesity and smoking rates, increasing fresh produce sales, making community gardens and walkways more available and stepping up active-based activities,” she said.

Similar to Certified Healthy Oklahoma — a voluntary statewide initiative to promote health and wellness — Blue Zones is simply a project to offer more healthful options.

She said Blue Zones also will offer a certification process.

That's where Bolt comes in. As organization lead, he — and another team member — will visit various entities in the area, such as schools, restaurants, grocery stores and worksites to explain the program and its goals to encourage them to commit to becoming a part of it.

An obvious incentive for a business owner, he said, is that the healthier employees are, the more productive and dependable they can be.

“They perform better,” he said.

Sure, he said an obvious goal is to get up and move, but the goal to improve access to healthy choices is not just about food and exercise.

“It's also social. Everyone knows that strong friendships can make you live longer,” he said. “It's the same with family relationships and any support system.”

It's important to note that the Blue Zones Project is not trying to force residents out of a lifestyle they are already content with, Melot said.

“Blue Zones isn't trying to tell people what to do; it isn't about coming in and saying, 'don't do this or don't do that',” Melot said. “We're just trying to make healthy choices easier.”

The exciting thing, Melot said, is that there is intense interest in all segments of the area.

“Restaurants, grocery stores, schools and businesses are showing extreme support,” she said.

A kickoff is planned for early August, when the Blue Zones Project will be able to share the blueprint of where Shawnee is at, what the group is doing to improve it and why, Melot said.

“Data shows that wellbeing is 80 percent determined by our environment, so let's make our environment better,” she said.

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.