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With the Boston marathon coming up, elite runners across the region (and the world) are training hard. But they’re not the only ones lacing up. For the past six months, a surprising contingent has been doing the same: a group of 6th grade boys from the Mario Umana Middle School in East Boston, many of whom had previously been inactive.
Now, these boys who initially could barely walk a mile are running one—and, most surprisingly of all, enjoying it. They’re discovering strength within themselves that they didn’t know they had. They’ve even set a goal of running the equivalent of multiple marathons by the year’s end. And it’s thanks to Tufts-Schweitzer Fellow Daniel Hatfield—a Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy student who, working with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, chose to create a running program for these boys as his Schweitzer service project.
Hatfield (who ran the Boston Marathon last year) meets with the boys two to three times each week, all on top of his graduate school responsibilities. Though he of course knew about running’s physical and psychosocial benefits, even he couldn’t have anticipated the eagerness with which these boys would embrace running—or the tremendous positive response from the community at large: New Balance donated attire and shoes for all of the boys.
Read on for an inside look at Hatfield’s Schweitzer project. We guarantee you’ll come away inspired.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
I’ve always enjoyed working with kids—as an undergrad I did a lot of work with a youth mentoring program, and after that I spent six years as a high school teacher and track coach. When I started working on my Schweitzer proposal, I knew I wanted to try to marry those interests with my current graduate work around health promotion.
When I first approached the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, I cast a pretty wide net in asking where I could support their youth programs. When the program director said they were interested in starting a kids’ walking/running program, I really jumped at the opportunity. One of the great things about running is its accessibility—you don’t need a whole bunch of equipment, and no matter where you’re starting from you can see measurable progress if you’re willing to put in the effort. I saw a lot of potential there.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I think about impact mostly at the individual level: what can we do that will affect these boys not only today, but also a year from now, or ten years from now? In part, that means having a physiological impact, and we are seeing signs of progress already in areas like body composition and aerobic capacity. Hopefully we’re also giving these boys the motivation and skills to sustain that progress.
That said, I think the potential for long-term psychosocial benefits may be even more powerful. At the start of the year, for example, the boys set individual and team running goals, and then proceeded to just knock things out of the park. Many of the kids had never been through that sort of process before. Their success, in turn, opened opportunities for us to say, “Okay, you’ve shown you can improve your mile time by five minutes—let’s see how that same sort of achievement mentality can play out in other parts of your life.” I hope this is positively affecting how these boys see themselves and their capacity for success, now and for the future.
Beyond this specific class of boys, we’re also working on ensuring that our curriculum can be replicated next year, not only at the Umana but at other local schools as well. We’ve actually already started exporting some of the more successful components of our curriculum to other classes, and that’s been exciting. I’m learning a lot as I go, and I’m hopeful that by the end of this year I’ll be able to look at what we’ve done with this group, distill out what’s worked best, and then build a plan for an even better program for next year.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Obesity comes most immediately to mind, especially since it’s grown to such epidemic proportions here in the U.S., and increasingly in other countries, too. The impact of that trend is so enormous, both emotionally and physiologically. We know that overweight increases risk for some of the leading causes of death and disability—heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and numerous others. When you’ve got a majority of the population with that risk factor, clearly you’ve got a public health crisis on your hands.
The pediatric obesity challenge is particularly pressing, in part because childhood overweight tends to persist into adulthood and in turn to increase risk for disease later in life. But now there’s also this trend where we’re seeing “adult” diseases like type-2 diabetes and hypertension appearing in children. We’ve got to do better in terms of catching this problem early in life, or, better yet, before it even becomes a problem.
With that said, this is a really hard, multifactorial issue. How we eat and move relates to so many complex physiological and emotional factors at the individual level, not to mention all the broader social and environmental issues that come into play. I can tell someone to eat healthier foods or to get more exercise, but what if he doesn’t have access to produce or live in a neighborhood where it’s safe to be outside? Viable solutions to the obesity issue will have to address this full range of factors—not just the individual child, but also the built environment, home, schools, and so on. I do recognize that programs like the one I’m working on are just one piece of a much larger, complex puzzle.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
The kids I work with surprise me every day, perhaps most especially in terms of how much they teach me. Early on, I expected that this would be an opportunity for me to give to others, but I underestimated how much I’d learn and be inspired in return. Here’s a short but telling story:
The other day, I was playing basketball with a bunch of kids in our after-school group. I’m just awful at basketball, embarrassingly so, really. But this one boy kept encouraging me—“Mr. Hat-man,” he’d say, “go for that layup!” or “Don’t worry about it, we’re just all doing our best.” This is a sixth-grade boy—maybe four-foot two on a good day—encouraging me to keep at it. I thought that was pretty amazing.
That’s pretty symbolic of my experience in Eastie more generally. Some days, especially early on, I felt like I was fumbling around, trying to understand these kids and what would work for them, and inevitably missing the mark once in awhile. And, believe me, sixth graders will let you know if something’s not working for them. Even through some of those challenges, though, the boys have been incredibly positive in their response to the program, and so willing to trust me and try different things. That’s really kept me motivated and given me a new level of confidence in my own ability as a community practitioner. Honestly, this experience has completely redefined how I view my own professional future.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
For me, being a Fellow means believing in service, and translating that belief into action. It’s been such a privilege to be part of a network of individuals who share this service ethic and are doing such inspiring work in its pursuit.
Daniel Hatfield is a Tufts-Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Hatfield it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Hatfield’s efforts to reduce mental health disparities, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.