GREAT BARRINGTON — For rural residents, isolation and poverty can make health care hard to come by.

But now there's a plan to help people stay healthy, and it now needs community input.

Fairview Hospital's Rural Health Network, with a federal rural health grant in hand, is working to make connections among South County residents and a range of health care services, and to work on related rural issues like transportation.

The network is inviting all residents to a conversation Friday at the Stockbridge Town Hall Community Room at 50 Main St. Pizza and salad will be offered at 12:30 p.m., and the meeting will start at 1.

The goal is to help a rural population know how to connect to preventive services, and medical and mental health care, and point them to what they might not know exists.

In July, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, announced the $100,000 planning grant from the Federal Office of Rural Health.

Isolation is something particular to rural life, a nationwide problem, said Deborah Phillips, a nutritionist and the Network's coordinator.

"It's so unique that we have to get really creative," she said. "Our surveys show that [isolation] expresses itself in a lot of ways, especially with elders. People in rural communities don't get out enough to connect, and that affects physical and mental well-being."

Phillips said young families in the area also struggle with isolation. And while telemedicine is making strides to reach people, she said, it isn't an option for people in areas without high-speed internet.

Network Director Deb Coons said that what is also important is to find people in the community with skill and interest who want to help the isolated population get the health care they need.

"We want residents to get whatever service they're not getting," said Coons, a clinical manager and nurse at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Coons said the list of local partnerships has grown to 10, apart from the core group of Fairview Hospital, Community Health Programs (CHP) and East Mountain Medical.

The network's website is still under construction but can be accessed through a link on the Fairview Hospital page of Berkshire Health Systems' website,

Phillips said the program is one a way to address poverty, which is all too prevalent in rural regions.

"We can't solve poverty, so we're trying to find the factors we can do something about," she said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871