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"Seeing our UPLIFT students begin to make healthier nutrition and exercise decisions – and hearing them talk about how they might incorporate these skills into their everyday lives – has made an incredible difference in our lives (and, we can only hope, in theirs!)," say Driscoll and Rosenthal (pictured above with the students they worked with this summer).

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.

Last week, President Obama issued an official proclamation that dubbed this September the first-ever National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. In the proclamation, the president noted the fact that childhood obesity (and the attendant chronic health conditions) disproportionately affects underserved populations, and urged “all Americans to take action to meet our national goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.”

Schweitzer Fellows Courtney Driscoll and Sara Rosenthal are doing their part. Recognizing that childhood obesity rates are particularly high in Chicago, these two DePaul University graduate nursing students are partnering with UPLIFT Community High School/Health Center to create and carry out a year-long health education program aimed at empowering Chicago youth to make healthy lifestyle choices.

They’ve been overwhelmed by both the generosity of community sponsors, and the degree to which their young students have embraced the program – and in the below interview, they share their thoughts on the urgency of addressing childhood obesity in collaborative, community-based ways.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

SR & CD: As graduate nursing students at DePaul University, we are aware of the alarming size, scope and acuity of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. Of the ten national priority areas chosen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Healthy People 2010” initiative, overweight/obesity and physical activity top the list.

However, while our country may be focusing more time and resources on these concerns than ever before, the overweight epidemic among young people continues to grow. According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled from 1980 to 2006 to an alarming 17.6%. In Chicago the situation is even more acute, with more than 25% of kids having Body Mass Indexes at or above the 95th percentile (Sinai Health System Survey).

As future healthcare providers, we understand the urgency of the obesity situation and are particularly aware of the toll healthcare issues take on communities already struggling with inadequate resources. As we considered where we could best focus our community-based health promotion activities for the Schweitzer Fellowship, we saw that one of our most immediate “calls to action” was to work closely with parents, schools, and kids/teens themselves – not only to alleviate obesity and other exercise/nutrition-related health problems, but also to help the individuals with whom we wanted to  work prevent a longer-term healthcare catastrophe that is largely preventable if/when kids adopt healthy habits early in life.

We’ve created our Fellowship program as a multi-pronged approach to helping the young men and women at Chicago’s UPLIFT Community High School prevent adolescent obesity and make healthy lifestyle choices. The major goals of our year-long program include:

  • Empowering students to combat adolescent overweight and obesity through nutritional awareness, physical activity and behavior change.
  • Helping students adopt healthy habits – including the choice to eat healthy diets and engage in daily exercise/physical activity.
  • Engaging students to inspire/encourage their peers and families to participate in healthy lifestyles and adopt health-promoting habits.

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

SR & CD: We hope that our health promotion program will offer a number of positive, life-changing benefits for our students. Fundamentally, we’re aiming to deepen students’ health knowledge and answer their health-related questions, which we hope will be a positive influence on their long-term health attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

We also strive to help the students understand that healthy decision-making isn’t only about hopping on a treadmill or eating celery sticks instead of potato chips. Ultimately, we hope they take away broader beliefs about exercise, physical activity and diet – that making small changes can yield major results over time, that true behavior/lifestyle modification is an ongoing process and not to get frustrated or to throw in the towel if the number on the scale doesn’t immediately reflect the hard work and/or diet modifications or sacrifices they feel they’ve been making.

While an important component of our program is measurement and assessment – particularly in tracking individuals’ goals and progress – we believe that far more important than ending the program with a lower BMI, smaller waistline or ability to run a 7-minute mile, the true measure of our success will be whether participants look back in May 2011, reflect on the goals they set, and feel proud about the work and milestones we accomplished together.

Finally, we see that our program is the continuation of the amazing work begun by other Schweitzer Fellows in partnership with UPLIFT’s Health Clinic a number of years ago.  We hope that the work we do with our students will have a lasting impact on them, and at the same time, are working hard to create a sustainable program and foster partnerships and relationships that we hope will transcend the two of us and that UPLIFT can sustain and strengthen for years to come.

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

SR & CD: While there are many health issues that can and must be better addressed in this country, we can think of no other issue that exceeds the importance or prevalence of obesity and obesity-related conditions (diabetes, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, etc). Given that many aspects of the obesity problem are preventable if and when people make smarter health decisions and lifestyle modifications early in life, we strongly believe that the preeminent health issue of our time needs to be tackled as comprehensively and as early in life as is possible.

According to research we’ve found, “in outpatient settings, nutrition management, without a simultaneous exercise and behavior modification program, frequently fails.” Thus, in order to be truly effective and have a measureable impact on the lives of young people, we believe that any effective anti-obesity initiative must be robust enough to tackle the two major contributors of the issue: 1) unhealthy caloric intake and 2) a lack of physical exercise and inactivity/sedentary habits.

Also, recognizing how deeply ingrained food and exercise habits are – and how influenced an individual is by family, peers, and other community groups – we think that the most effective anti-obesity programs for teens are those that encourage the active involvement of parents, schools, community organizations, nurses/physicians, coaches, nutritionists, clergy, the food industry, and kids/teens themselves.

As our Fall program begins in a few weeks, we plan to garner support and buy-in from students through a program contract that formalizes their commitment to working toward personal health goals and will also continue to seek parent/guardian support – making materials available to them, inviting parental participation in various activities and asking parents to co-sign the program contract. We also plan to continue seeking the support, involvement and advice of many different community constituents (clergy, coaches, community organizations, etc.)

Finally, one of the most compelling lessons we’ve learned from our Schweitzer mentors over the last few months is how important it is to consider the many strengths/assets of the community we’re serving, how we can harness these strengths to further bolster our program, and also how our student participants can help be our strongest champions and ambassadors for further recruitment.

In this way, while the two of us have ideas about how the obesity issue can be addressed at UPLIFT, we now consult our students with much greater frequency and are using their input, advice and skills to help us build a stronger program and one in which they feel they have a greater stake.

"Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, we’ve found an incredible opportunity to empower students with information, confidence and support so they might be better able to keep themselves and their families healthy," say Driscoll and Rosenthal (pictured in front of a mosaic completed by UPLIFT students over the summer).

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

SR & CD: We began the Fellowship with some concern that, as 30-year-old women, connecting with junior high and high school students could prove to be challenging, and that it might take some time to build a comfort level and rapport with them.  We also knew that building a health education program from the ground-up was in some ways uncharted territory, given how new we both are to nursing.

Yet in spite of these natural fears, it has been incredibly heartening to see how enthusiastic, involved and energized our students are with the exercise activities and nutrition/cooking education we’ve planned for them.  Nearly every guest presenter and instructor we work with remarks about how special and joyful the students are.

Equally gratifying is the level of interest and involvement of the students who attend our biweekly events.  While the students clearly prefer some types of activities more than others, there has not been one occasion when any of our students refused to participate or sat out of an activity. With few exceptions, as our activities are coming to an end, at least one student will ask us: “Can we keep doing this for a while longer? I’m really having fun and don’t want the activity to end!” or “Can you bring this person [instructor] back in to do this next week?” or “Where can we do this kind of activity on a regular basis?”

The students have eagerly embraced our activities, the tough work and health goals we’re working to accomplish with them, and the two of us personally, which has been a wonderful – and wonderfully gratifying – surprise!!

In addition to the students’ enthusiasm, we’ve also been overwhelmed and grateful for the outpouring of support and involvement we’ve received from businesses, organizations and nutrition/exercise experts across the city of Chicago.  As amazing advocates, our program partners have made generous donations of time and/or products that have greatly enhanced our program.  Our specific program partners have included Whole Foods Market (Halsted & Waveland); Lululemon Athletica (Lincoln Park); Nathan Performance Gear; Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing; Chicago Area Runners Association; Wildcat Juniors Volleyball (Karen Sonders); Ray Meyer Fitness Center at DePaul University; Eva Westley (Yoga) and Zumba with Iida.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

SR & CD: The Schweitzer Fellowship has already been an incredibly rewarding opportunity for us — both personally and professionally. We are continually inspired and challenged by the Fellows we encounter…not only to re-examine the world and philanthropy in new ways, but also to consider where, how and in what capacity we might use our nursing and health promotion skills to best benefit communities around us.  Recognizing that the most important aspect of quality nursing care is patient education, and that you can only learn and improve this skill by doing it, the Schweitzer Fellowship has proven to be a terrific adjunct learning environment for us to sharpen our skills as nurse educators.

We believe, as nursing theorist Nola Pender does, that the ultimate goal of our profession is “to help people care for themselves.” Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, we’ve found an incredible opportunity to empower students with information, confidence and support so they might be better able to keep themselves and their families healthy. Seeing our UPLIFT students begin to make healthier nutrition and exercise decisions – and hearing them talk about how they might incorporate these skills into their everyday lives – has made an incredible difference in our lives (and, we can only hope, in theirs!).

Sara Rosenthal and Courtney Driscoll are Schweitzer Fellows in Chicago, IL. Click here to read more about The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program (hosted by Health & Medicine Policy Research Group) and the Fellows like Leung it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Rosenthal and Driscoll’s efforts to address childhood obesity, click here. Thanks to a matching grant from a generous anonymous donor, your gift will be doubled!