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"The project empowers girls to be agents for change in their community and fosters their commitment to civic engagement in the future—so that one day they will find a health need and create a program to tackle it," says Saunders (pictured above with project participants).

As an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Jonelle Saunders participated in Strong Women, Strong Girls—which connects female college-student mentors with elementary school-aged girls in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Boston.

“As one of the few minority college-aged mentors participating,” Saunders says, “I felt a special connection to these girls, and many of them looked up to me as a role model for what they could one day be. I wanted to do something with the girls that would show them that they are equipped with the tools to make change in the world.”

That’s exactly what she did. After applying to the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program as a CMU masters student in healthcare policy and management, Saunders partnered with Strong Women, Strong Girls to create “Supporting Our Cause”—a Schweitzer project that has now been replicated in nine Pittsburgh-area schools and recently won the  Jefferson Award Youth Service Challenge.

The project awakens the advocacy and entrepreneurial skills of girls in third through fifth grade, teaching them about toxicity in personal care products; helping them develop, market, and sell their own safe and natural personal care products; and encouraging them to act as catalysts for change in their own communities and neighborhoods.

Now a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Saunders spoke with us about the continuing impact of her Schweitzer project—and her continuing commitment to addressing health disparities.

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

Strong Women, Strong Girls was a huge part of my undergraduate experience. I found that tying my Schweitzer Fellowship with Strong Women, Strong Girls could help me continue to build strong skills in the girls, but also address health outcomes.

I wanted to find something that would excite the girls on various levels—including future academic goals, taking control of their health, and increasing their self esteem. I thought that the idea behind the Safe Cosmetics Act legislation would interest the girls and show them that change is happening each day.

So I came up with “Supporting Our Cause,” a project that would allow the girls to learn about toxicity in personal care products, develop safe and natural personal care products, and act as catalysts for change in their own communities and neighborhoods.

What was the lasting impact of your project on the community it served?

The “Supporting Our Cause” service project—through which the girls learned about, created, and sold their own personal care products—was piloted at nine schools in the Pittsburgh area, and will hopefully be implemented into Strong Women, Strong Girls’ national curriculum to be used at other sites throughout the country, including Boston and Miami.

At the completion of the project, we created a video where the girls demonstrated their advocacy, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills. The project was chosen as one of just seven national winners out of over 4,700 Jefferson Award Youth Service Challenge entries.

Beyond the curriculum, the girls were able to create and distribute information about toxins in personal care products and recipes for their friends and families to use in the future to create their own natural personal care products. Through the sale of these products, the girls not only increased awareness but also raised money for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund—where the Carnegie Mellon chapter presented a check and a video explaining the importance of knowing what chemicals are in products people use every day.

Most importantly, the project empowers girls to be agents for change in their community and fosters their commitment to civic engagement in the future—so that one day they will find a health need and create a program to tackle it.

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

The lack of health information and health literacy, especially in low-income communities. In my project, I was able to learn more about toxins in personal care products than I had before—but also about other chemicals that are in our food, air, and various other parts of our everyday experience. Just having this information made me feel empowered to make changes to my diet and pay more attention to my environment—which made me think about the many people who do not have information on simpler health topics that could change their lives.

This gap of knowledge can encompass nutrition and diet, prenatal health, sexual health, and other health issues—and it is large, and affecting outcomes, in many communities. This lack of information is widespread not only in the United States, but internationally— and building a strategy for empowering people with knowledge could have huge impacts on health outcomes.

Knowledge is power, and being equipped with information that directly affects one’s health and well-being is essential. There is a quote in public health that relates directly to this—it is, “Let not the people perish for lack of knowledge.”

What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

The most surprising element to me was how interdisciplinary the health industry truly is. As a Science and Humanities Scholar at Carnegie Mellon, I have always been a proponent of interdisciplinary approaches to various issues—but as a Schweitzer Fellow sitting in a room with other Fellows who were students in policy, dentistry, medicine, psychology, art therapy, public health, law and other fields, I was able to truly understand that health is bigger than just the hospital or doctor’s office. There is a myriad of factors and perspectives that contribute to overall health and are necessary in creating a health system that can decrease disparities.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life means that I will always truly have Reverence for Life in everything that I do. This mindset has allowed me to stay humble and grounded even after leaving the Fellowship. It is humbling to know that I have a network of Fellows who are also dedicated to helping beyond just their time in the Fellowship.

As a current law student, I am proud to do pro bono work and continue to tie my commitment to addressing health disparities into my experience. I am constantly evaluating whether or not I am spending enough time focusing on others and how I can impact the community around me. Further, after the success of my Schweitzer project, I now know that I have the ability to identify a problem and work to be the change that I want to see.  

Jonelle Saunders is a Schweitzer Fellow for Life from Pittsburgh, PA. Click here to read more about The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF)’s Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Saunders it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that improve the health and well-being of vulnerable people and communities. To make a gift to support the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program, 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.