, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

For Anne Sutkowi and Ashley Roberts (above), running is more than just a hobby—it’s a passion that has sustained them through difficult times, taught them the value of teamwork, and ultimately empowered them to live confident, healthy lives.

So it’s no surprise that as Schweitzer Fellows, these UCLA Master of Public Health students are translating that passion into STRIDES—a program that uses skill-building and 5k training sessions to decrease suicide risk factors by increasing self-esteem and social support among Olympic High School students.

Olympic is one of California’s continuation high schools—state law-mandated programs that provide an alternative path to a diploma for “students vulnerable to academic or behavioral failure.” Read on to find out the ways in which Roberts and Sutkowi’s STRIDES program—which will officially launch on September 13th—will address risk factors for these students.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Roberts and Sutkowi: Suicide is an important and preventable public health concern. In the United States and in Los Angeles County, it is the third leading cause of death among adolescents ages 15-24. Youth at continuation high schools are at risk for multiple physical and mental health issues – including suicide – because they often lack self-esteem, social support, and appropriate coping skills.

Successful suicide prevention for adolescents includes individualized interventions based on identified risk factors and strengthening of social support networks. STRIDES, our running and mentorship program, will focus on reducing risk factors identified through a focus group conducted with youth at Olympic High School and strengthening students’ social support networks.

Running is an outlet through which we both manage stress, set and achieve personal goals, and maintain our physical health, and we are excited to provide Olympic High School youth an opportunity to experience the personal benefits of running. Our hope is that by training for and completing the STRIDES 5k Run/Walk, youth will be inspired to set new personal goals and have the confidence in their abilities to achieve them.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Roberts and Sutkowi: The ultimate goal of STRIDES is to reduce suicidality among Olympic High School students. We hope the youth who complete the program learn invaluable lessons about themselves and useful life skills through the training process and culminating STRIDES 5k Run/Walk.

STRIDES will also give students at Olympic High School an opportunity to build lasting friendships with their peers through skill-building activities and team training for the STRIDES 5k Run/Walk. Once we have completed one cycle of the program, we hope to expand STRIDES by reaching out to more continuation high schools.

The STRIDES 5k Run/Walk aims to benefit both the youth participants and the community at large. For the STRIDES participants, it is the chance to accomplish the goal for which they have been training throughout the 10-week program and share their accomplishment with their peers and community. For the community, it is an opportunity to raise awareness about continuation high schools and that suicide is a preventable problem that can and should be addressed by everyone.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Sutkowi: Substance Abuse. Tobacco, alcohol, and illicit substance use are all named on the top 10 list of actual causes of death in the United States. But as public health professionals, our goal is not only to keep people alive but also to advance people’s physical, mental, and social well-being.

Substance abuse is a problem for all people, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or sexual orientation. It must be addressed on individual, community, and societal levels. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to identify people with substance abuse and dependence, provide them with resources for appropriate care, and prescribe medications responsibly.

Positive youth development programs have been demonstrated as an effective public health approach to the substance abuse problem. We hope that, by providing STRIDES participants with opportunities to be involved with their communities and to build self-esteem and self-efficacy, we will also reduce substance abuse – an important suicide risk factor for youth.

Roberts: Eliminating health disparities. Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his [sic] family.” And yet, one of the two goals of Healthy People 2010 was to eliminate health disparities, which are still a stark reality in American society. Unfortunately, these disparities may expand before they contract, as demographers expect the groups that currently experience poorer health outcomes to grow proportionally over the next decade.

Eliminating health disparities will require the concerted effort of policymakers and advocates to ensure that all Americans have access to preventive and clinical health care, affordable education, and social services. Additionally, public health professionals have the responsibility to appropriately identify high-risk groups and create targeted programs to meet their needs.

We hope that STRIDES will begin to decrease the suicide risk factors that make students at continuation high schools disproportionately at risk for suicide, when compared to their peers at comprehensive high schools.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as Schweitzer Fellows?

Sutkowi: Having never heard of the Schweitzer Fellowship before beginning my graduate program at UCLA, I continue to be surprised by how many people I come across that have heard of the Fellowship. People from many professional fields and many areas of the country have heard of the Schweitzer Fellowship because Schweitzer Fellows are building positive relationships within communities and making lasting impacts with the individuals and communities in which they are working.

Roberts: What has surprised me most is not the variety of health issues that the Los Angeles Fellows are attempting to tackle, but rather the ingenuity with which they are addressing these issues. It has been instructive to collaborate with individuals from various health-related fields and begin to better understand new tactics for health interventions. I feel honored to be part of such a creative group.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Sutkowi: Being a Schweitzer Fellow means belonging to a group of professionals and students who care about their communities and feel a responsibility to help other people. As a Schweitzer Fellow, I feel inspired by other Fellows to be productive and to continue incorporating community service into my career as a public health professional.

Roberts: To me, being a Schweitzer Fellow is an exciting opportunity to put the skills I’m learning in my public health program to use in my community. I also see this as a chance to get to know the health needs of youth in Los Angeles on a deeper and more meaningful level. Finally, like Anne mentioned, the community of Schweitzer Fellows provide an invaluable forum in which I can explore new ideas about how to respond to pressing public health issues in innovative and sustainable ways.

Ashley Roberts and Anne Sutkowi are Schweitzer Fellows in Los Angeles, CA. Click here to read more about The Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Roberts and Sutkowi it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Roberts’ and Sutkowi’s efforts to empower Los Angeles’ continuation high school students, click here.