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Galvanized by the Philadelphia area’s disproportionately high HIV infection rates, Schweitzer Fellows Jillian Heck and Melissa Warriner joined forces to develop a unique, after-school physical activity and health education program focused on HIV/AIDS education and prevention.

In today’s installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow,” Heck (a student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine) and Warriner (a physical therapy student at Jefferson School of Health Professions) talk about the motivation behind their Schweitzer project, the way they turned a simple game of “tag” into an educational tool, and their excitement about joining the interdisciplinary Fellows for Life network of leaders in service.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

A 2008 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that HIV/AIDS infection rates are “more than five times the national average” in the Greater Philadelphia area. Furthermore, another study states that 34% of adolescents have had sex by the time they are in 9th grade. These two facts astounded us and served as the main motivation for our project, which targets middle-school aged adolescents and provides them with HIV/AIDS education through the use of physical activity.

Adding sports into the mix, although seemingly odd, was an easy decision.  We both come from a background of sports. We grew up together on the soccer field in elementary school, and today, we continue to run together every morning. It was surprising how easily we came up with interactive games to incorporate into our HIV/AIDs education, and the response we got from the students was phenomenal. After a long school day, the last thing the students wanted to do was sit and listen to us lecture. By engaging them in physical activity, we got their minds working and found an effective way to get our message across.

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

In targeting middle school-aged adolescents, we hoped to help them make safer choices by becoming more informed about HIV/AIDS before they start engaging in sexual behavior. Additionally, we hope we gave the students the courage to pass on what has been learned to others. Collectively, this will make for a healthier environment for the entire community.

We also hope that we helped to debunk the myths and stereotypes that encompass HIV and AIDS.  It is amazing that decades after the first case of HIV, strongly held false beliefs still exist. We found it so important to emphasize and re-emphasize the truths and lies that exist about HIV. We hope we can help to stop the spreading of false rumors and start a snowball effect of truth.

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

We believe that the most pressing health issue of our time is obesity. In order to address this issue, it is extremely important to take a step back.  We cannot solve the issue of rising scales across the globe without addressing the underlying causes.

Obesity is to blame across the board for the pressing and ever-growing health issues of our time: diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer, and so much more. As these issues continue to snowball out of control, we continue to ignore it. We create more drugs every day to strap a big band aid across the real problem.

The answer? There is no single answer, but it begins with education. It needs to begin early and reverse back to educate our current adult population. It is time to throw away the two-minute mindset and start thinking more long term.  Sure, we all know that a salad is a better choice than a double cheeseburger with fries—and that a package of twinkies costs less than a head of broccoli—but what will that choice translate to 20 years from now? We need to understand what unhealthy choices will cost us down the road.  Over time, obesity translates to greater monetary health costs, a greater burden to our loved ones, and a decreased quality of life for ourselves.

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

The most surprising element of our experience as Schweitzer Fellows so far has to be the fact that middle school and high school kids still love basic “tag” games. We are continually surprised with how well received we are with the students. We create different games to demonstrate what we have been teaching them about HIV/AIDs, and they are very good at picking up on what we’re aiming to get across.

A tag game we used to play growing up was where one person is “it” and as they tag others they hold hands and become linked together so “it” grows and grows as more people are tagged until eventually there is nobody left to be tagged—similar to HIV-infected white blood cells taking over healthy white blood cells.  We planned to play that particular game about two times before switching gears—but the students were so into it we kept playing several rounds of that until we were all exhausted!

We had the same type of experience with a basketball Jeopardy game that proved to have great educational results. Although we keep being surprised by these occurrences, they also constantly remind us how much of a driving factor competition is in these age groups—which has its benefits in participation!

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Fellow this year has been wonderful because we’ve been able to interact with 14 other fellows across the Philadelphia area from over five universities and more than six different professions. We have learned a great deal from each other about community needs and have created lasting inter-disciplinary relationships. Furthermore, we have had a variety of excellent guest speakers during our monthly meetings where we have learned about service opportunities and non-profit organizations in the area. We are pursuing medicine and physical therapy so that we may help others, but this Fellowship has also reminded us that we don’t need to wait until we graduate to begin.

We were really lucky this past year because we were able to attend the Fellows For Life Conference in Baltimore, MD, where we were able to interact with many other past Fellows. Being able to share in that weekend really gave us a good idea about what we have to look forward to after our Fellowship year. We are in two different disciplines—medicine and physical therapy—and neither of us knows where we’ll end up practicing, but we think it’s great that we will have the FFL network. We feel confident that we will be able to talk to past Fellows living across the country and stay involved with service no matter where we end up.

The other great part about being able to connect with other past Fellows is the fact that if we move somewhere new, we may have service ideas that we think are important in the given city, but now we’ll be able to talk to other Fellows and learn what the population we want to help would actually see as beneficial, rather than us just assuming what sorts of health disparities are present. 

Jillian Heck and Melissa Warriner are Schweitzer Fellows in Philadelphia, PA. Click here to read more about the Greater Philadelphia Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Heck and Warriner it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Heck and Warriner’s efforts to provide preventive HIV/AIDS education, 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.