Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mentor programs groom young adults to become public health leaders

Many teens are used to being taught by someone else, whether it be a schoolteacher or a parent.

But when it comes to developing the next generation of public health workers, sometimes it’s better for the teen to become the teacher.

Presenters at Tuesday’s "Mentoring Models to Engage Youth as Active Public Health Leaders" session highlighted how young adults across the country are taking charge of programs that not only improve their health but the health of their families.

In the No Heart Left Behind program, Delaware teens learn about nutrition, cardiovascular disease risk and behavioral health, then use that knowledge to serve as teen coaches, said session presenter Lanae Ampersand of Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Delaware. As a coach, the teens teach their parents both at home and at outside educational events, such as at dance classes, how to improve their families’ health. Christiana Care partners with school-based health centers and schools to put on the program.

“Our teen coaches felt like it was a lot of fun,” Ampersand reported. “We got to see them say, ‘Wow I can do this. I can make a difference. Adults listen to me.’”

Since receiving funding in 2012, No Heart Left Behind has reached over 5,000 adults and teen coaches, with staff tracking more than 600 adults and teens over three years.

Teens self-reported an increase in the daily average of vegetables they eat, from 2 to 2.2 servings. Adults increased their daily fruit servings as well, from 1.9 to 2.3 servings — a 20 percent increase, Ampersand said.

“We were able to focus on educating an underserved population,” Ampersand said. “You teach the teen and you can see them teach the family member. And the family member…they’re sharing with their co-worker, at church. You can start to see how it can spread the message to the community as a whole.”

To the north up Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, high school students in the Teens 4 Good program participate in an urban community garden effort, in which they learn about farming, business operations and nutrition education during a six-week summer internship.

“They decide how much they’ll sell things for, what things will be planted,” said session presenter Katelyn Hurley of Thomas Jefferson University’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, where she conducted research on the program. “Our teens really appreciate the opportunity to be heard and for actions to be taken as they provide suggestions for this business.”

Surveyed teens who had participated in the program for multiple years said the experience forced them to break out of their shells and become leaders to guide the newer students. The teens also said they learned a variety of work readiness skills, such as the importance of being dependable and showing up to work on time, Hurley said.

Running since 2005, Teens 4 Good allows young people to not only gain a deeper understanding of workplace and leadership skills, but the health issues facing their communities, such as food insecurity, Hurley said.

— N.M.

Above, Lanae Ampersand speaks during Tuesday’s “Mentoring Models to Engage Youth as Active Public Health Leaders” session on the No Heart Left Behind Program. Photo by Natalie McGill

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