Nat West: A man with plans for a better tomorrow
A statue of a little boy reading sits in Winter Haven’s Central Park, a testimony to a man dedicated to improving the city’s quality of life: Nat West. At 69, the former vice president of Winter Haven Hospital (WHH) is retired, but still active in the community he loves. “The sculpture was commissioned by local folks in his honor because of his willingness not just to see an issue and say ‘that’s a shame,’ but to see an issue and say ‘what can I do to change that?’” says T. Michael Stavres, Winter Haven’s director of community services.
“Nat West was part of conversations with the Quality of Life Task Force regarding obesity; then became a founding member of Building a Healthier Polk,” says Linda Hawbaker, health education program manager for Florida Department of Health in Polk County, and a participant in the initiative organized through the community-led partnership Polk Vision. “He’s been instrumental in developing the three-year initiative to reduce obesity in Polk County.”
Long an advocate of fitness, West exercises every morning (running twice a week and using an elliptical machine three times a week). He started a downtown fitness program in Winter Haven, and has been encouraging similar programs in other Polk County communities. “When you’re in the hospital business you realize […] many of the people are there because of choices,” West says.
Often, the ones who turn up for the Family Fun and Fitness at the Fountain program, where they do sit-ups and pushups to music, are already in fitness programs. “I don’t have the key to motivation,” he observes. Inspired by Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, West encourages exercise as the key not only to wellness, but to improved academic performance as well. Through Public Education Partnership (PEP), where he is a board member, he is working to change how physical education is done in schools. “All I can do is make suggestions,” says West, the father of two.
He believes diet is vitally important to our health. An active member of Chat and Chew, a group that shares resources about healthy eating, he recently served as speaker at one of their meetings.
West was impressed by the importance of eating healthily through the film Forks Over Knives, which chronicles the findings of two physicians promoting whole food, plant-based diets: Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. “We’re drinking almond milk instead of regular milk,” West says. “We’re just eating a lot more nuts, vegetables and fruits.”
He is also working with a committee led by Beverly Williams Kerr to establish community gardens where residents can grow vegetables and fruits.
West reads for information, and as a member of Winter Haven’s Library board, he is working to encourage young people to read. He and his wife, Jane, donate the book Goodnight Moon to all newborns at WHH’s Regency Center for Women and Infants, as well as books monthly to children through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and United Way. He is working with the city to bring books to the neighborhoods for children who are unable to visit the library this summer.
Additionally, he also set up a program that connects high school students with members of the community so they can learn about a career they want to pursue.
An avid musician, West plays the guitar, banjo and the hammer dulcimer, an instrument played by striking strings with wooden hammers. He is working to bring culture to institutions nearby. He donated 23 mountain dulcimers to Inwood Elementary, where they are being trained to play the stringed instrument.
West is also behind Friday night concerts in downtown Winter Haven, including Pickin’ in the Park, Praise in the Park, a dulcimer night for those who play mountain and hammer dulcimers, and Join Us and Jam, where local musicians have an opportunity to play.
A native of Washington, D.C., West stands out not only for his creative ideas, but for his willingness to partner with others to accomplish them. “He’s instrumental in so much that we get done in the community,” Stavres says. “He’s a non-stop dynamo.”
John Stewart, a former Polk County school superintendent and friend, says West’s interest in the schools led to some important changes. “He’s a spark. He just makes things happen, no matter where he is or what he’s doing,” says Stewart, who is now retired and living in Gainesville. “People want to be around him because of his personality, his charm, and his attitude about life.”
West suggested Stewart visit schools and meet with teachers. He then joined Stewart and his associate superintendent David Lewis, as scribe, when they went to 43 schools in a five-month period. As a result, the kindergarten through second grade report cards were changed and non-mandated testing was eliminated. Teachers were given more time to teach by computerized lesson planning, West recalls.
“He does more good than anybody that I know of, for unselfish reasons because he cares,” adds Cathy Thornhill, one of the organizers of Chat and Chew, who is a retired deputy superintendent for Polk County schools.
West has moved around a lot over the years, but he likes the sense of identity he has in Winter Haven. “It’s just a great thrill to be able to have such an impact,” he says. “This city for me has just been spectacular, and I hope to continue to serve the community in any capacity I’m needed.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS
For more information: You can connect with Nat West and learn more about these projects by calling (863) 297-9387. For more information about Building a Healthier Polk, a Polk Vision Initiative, go to www.polkvision.com/building-a-healthier-polk/. You can also connect on Twitter at @HealthierPolk and on Facebook.