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West Orange Healthcare District:

The History and Future of Wellness

West Orange Memorial Hospital
West Orange Memorial Hospital

Health care debates, nutrition trends, conflicting research — it seems the news about health and wellness is changing every day. Creating a healthy community now means access to facilities and resources that shape a healthy lifestyle. As research unfolds to reveal the necessity of a holistic approach to health and wellness, the West Orange Healthcare District listens closely in order to continue a mission started 70 years ago: improve access to health care services and quality of care for residents of west Orange County.

On October 11, 1949, the West Orange Healthcare District joined the ranks of a national movement. It was just after World War II, with populations swelling as soldiers returned, and the national focus shifting from the war to domestic policies. Rural communities, especially, found themselves at the center of a conversation about accessible and affordable health care.

The solution? Special districts, where property taxes within their boundaries would support the construction and maintenance of health care facilities decided upon by a locally elected board, began cropping up throughout the country.

A group of citizens in Central Florida took up the mantle and soon formed a district, beginning with the construction of West Orange Memorial Hospital.

“I think for the first 60 years we really were focused largely on what many health care districts do, which is build,” said Tracy Swanson, who has served as CEO of the West Orange Healthcare District since 2015. After the first hospital came more facilities, with the area’s first emergency rescue and transportation program in the 1960s, a 118-bed nursing facility and a hospital expansion in the 1970s, and the opening of Health Central Hospital in the 1990s.

Parts of the Whole

Oakland Nature Preserve
Oakland Nature Preserve

But just as it did in the years following the war, health care evolved, and the district began looking at more holistic and preventive approaches, with some retroactive help from its predecessors.

“Some districts have very limited or strict functions in terms of who they can serve,” Swanson said, “but I love that our past trustees saw fit to think about the health of all members of the community.”

In 2012, the board of trustees sold all of the district’s brick-and-mortar assets to Orlando Health, kicking off a partnership that would allow West Orange to continue the development of state-of-the-art facilities and technologies in the community, including the Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center and a new skilled nursing facility. The district and Orlando Health also came together early in 2016 to champion Healthy West Orange, a movement to create the healthiest community in the nation.

“We’re taking a very strategic approach in terms of investing. Our trustees are very focused on prevention,” Swanson said. “Health care has changed considerably. It’s more than trying to eradicate disease and make sure you’re taking care of people with chronic disease. Now there’s so much research around prevention and how to reduce the demand or need for hospitals. It includes nutrition, overall health, fitness, and even beyond to include implications of stress and environment.”

Today the district provides grants to programs based on research and studies, including a Fitness in Nature program with the Oakland Nature Reserve, an Arts and Wellness program with Central Florida Community Arts, and a new 11,500-square-foot Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida facility that includes computer and arts labs and a health and life sciences center.

Tucker Ranch

Tucker Ranch
Tucker Ranch

As part of a partnership with Healthy West Orange, the district and the City of Winter Garden announced plans in 2017 for a 12-to 14-acre sustainable working and teaching farm. The district awarded a $1.7 million grant to the project, seeing Tucker Ranch as an opportunity for many of its initiatives to thrive as one.

According to a press release announcing the project, the farm is being designed based on the principles of “permaculture,” imitating natural ecosystems and their patterns to conserve soil and water and reduce waste. Frog Song Organics, a local grower that will help complete and operate the farm, provides both the model and the guidance to see it through.

“Most commercial farms grow one cash crop and rely upon chemicals and economies of scale to guarantee profits,” said Tanja Gerhartz, economic development director with the City of  Winter Garden. “Permaculture relies upon a variety of crops that function together to create a viable and sustainable ecosystem. We hope to grow as many as 50 different crops.”

An important part of the program will include the Institute of Health & Wellness, focusing on educational programing that features cooking and nutrition classes, farming instruction and a variety of health and wellness events and classes. The food grown at Tucker Ranch will stay in west Orange County, with much of it being sold at the Winter Garden Farmers Market, awarded America’s Favorite Farmers Market in 2018 by American Farmland Trust.

Winter Garden Farmers Market
Winter Garden Farmers Market

Through it all, the district remains committed to investing in the community and supporting Healthy West Orange as it becomes clear that the healthiest community is one that empowers its citizens to invest in their physical, emotional, psychological and environmental wellbeing.

“The community has embraced us with open arms,” Swanson said. “We went this route because ‘Healthy West Orange’ is a call to action for the entire community to come together, to do things in a fun and inviting way, and to meet people where they are.”  

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