For as long as St. Charles has been paying for people to swim at the Madras Aquatic Center, Dr. Shilo Tippett has seen the benefits of the program firsthand.

There was the man with severe anxiety whose nighttime swims helped quiet his unease. And the decades-long smoker who went to the pool to replace her habit, which helped her re-envision herself as a healthy person engaged in healthy behaviors.

Tippett remembers a handful of kids who felt hopeless because, unlike many of their peers, they weren’t into sports. Trips to the MAC always lifted their mood, she said. And she smiles when she recalls a group of women who, individually, felt self-conscious about going to the pool on their own.

“We gave them all passes and now they all go together – or at least they were before the pandemic,” said Tippett, a clinical psychologist at St. Charles Family Care Madras. “We have an endless number of stories like that.”

Those stories are the direct result of the St. Charles swim voucher program, which gives providers across Madras the ability to refer patients to the MAC, a popular pool and recreation center on the east side of town. There, the patient can turn in their referral, and St. Charles will pay the fee to swim – currently $7 for two hours – out of its Community Benefit budget.

The program has existed in some form for several years, but St. Charles started tracking usage more closely in July of 2019. Since then, 112 different people have visited the MAC on referral from a health care provider, said Carlos Salcedo, manager of community partnerships for the health system.

“That’s 112 individuals who, through St. Charles, have been encouraged to exercise, to improve their health and to engage with the MAC and with their community,” Salcedo said. “The cost to engage in your own community is a huge hurdle for some people, and this eliminates that and gets them out of the house and into an active and social environment.” (Note: The MAC is currently closed until at least Dec. 18 because of COVID-19. Its reopening plan is available on its website.)

According to Tippett, the swim voucher program started about six years ago, shortly after she shadowed a provider in Redmond who was referring patients to the Cascade Swim Center there. She teamed up with Dr. Jinnell Lewis, a family care physician at the Madras clinic and avid swimmer, and the two approached the MAC with their idea.

“We went in and said, ‘We want to give swim passes to people,’” Tippett said. “The MAC’s director at the time was totally open to it, and the program just took off.”

Referrals to the pool are especially useful for patients who are overweight, who struggle with other forms of exercise, or who deal with chronic pain, depression and/or anxiety, Tippett said. By eliminating the cost of MAC access, the program makes it easier for many people to exercise, to interact with others and even just to leave their home. For residents of Warm Springs, the pool also offers a replacement for the hot springs and soaking pool at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, which closed two years ago, Tippett said.

“It’s just so hopeful,” she said of the program. “I go to the pool, too, and I’m regularly running into people who tell me what a difference it has made in their lives. It’s amazing every time.”

St. Charles also sponsors the MAC through a $5,000 contribution from the St. Charles Foundation, said Marcus Thompson, St. Charles’ community advocate in Madras, and that allows the health system to hang a banner at the pool. But for Tippett, the swim voucher program is “where the rubber meets the road” in the partnership between the two organizations. “This gives us a way to directly help a patient who’s dealing with something that feels insurmountable,” she said. “What we’re actually doing here is improving people’s lives with this program.”

That’s also the goal of the Madras Aquatic Center Recreation District, which owns and operates the pool, said the group’s interim executive director, Courtney Snead.

“The MACRD is focused on holistic health, how we can be a good partner in the community and looking at our health outcomes as a whole – not just trying to get people into our pool and signed up for our programs,” Snead said. “I think this is just the beginning of a more robust conversation about health in our area and lots of opportunities for partnership, which is really exciting.”

That outlook aligns with Salcedo’s hopes for the swim voucher program. He has already expanded it to include non-St. Charles providers at Mosaic Medical and Madras Medical Group, and he is talking with MACRD officials about extending the program beyond the pool, into other rec district programs.

“What we want to do is move it out of the clinics and into the community,” he said. “We want to make this bigger and open it up more and make it even more inclusive, because the more attention it gets, the more people will use it.”

At St. Charles, the oft-repeated organizational vision is “Creating America’s healthiest community, together,” and it’s that final word – together – that is exemplified by the swim voucher program, said David Golda, vice president and administrator of St. Charles Madras.

“I have no doubt that St. Charles and the MAC recreation district have very similar missions as far as improving the health of the Madras-area community,” Golda said. “It’s certainly a natural partnership that’s already paying off, and this program is a great example of how something that seems so simple can have such a huge effect on people’s lives.”