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As members of the very first class of Indiana Schweitzer Fellows, Darby Chodakowski (far right) and Chelsea Kane (near right) have made their mark on their community—and their professional peers: they will present their Schweitzer service project at today’s Indiana Association of Residential Child Caring Agencies (IARCCA) annual conference.

The two Schweitzer Fellows (both students at the University of Indianapolis School of Psychological Sciences) partnered with the Riley Hospital for Children. They provided education and support to parents of children enrolled in the hospital’s POWER (Pediatric OverWeight Education and Research) Program, which addresses childhood obesity through nutrition education, cooking classes, and focused exercise activity.

Prior to their Schweitzer project, no such parent support existed—and in today’s interview, Chodakowski and Kane discuss the impact of their efforts, their belief in multidisciplinary teamwork as a means of solving health and social problems, and their hopes for their IARCCA presentation.

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Kane: When we stumbled upon a newspaper article about the Riley Hospital for Children’s POWER Program and their associated summer camp, we were so intrigued by their model that we felt we had to give them a call. We contacted the program coordinator, Amanda Garant (who turned out to be our Schweitzer site mentor), and immediately she wanted to include us in their work. She mentioned that their weekly classes had no parent education component—and from there, our project was born. We then set out to build a model and curriculum that could complement the work being done with the children. Our goal was to provide parents with the tools and education to help them help their children succeed.

Chodakowski: Childhood obesity is one of the leading health concerns in Indiana, and we understand that many of the contributing factors to this complex problem have behavioral and psychological underpinnings. It is important to bear in mind that multiple biological, social, and psychological factors of each person’s experience, including socioeconomic disparities, uniquely coalesce to develop into health dilemmas such as obesity. Though we initially sought to target interventions toward the children themselves, we quickly realized that our time and efforts would be better spent focusing upon parents, as they serve as the most pivotal and consistent sources of behavioral and environmental change in a child’s day-to-day life. Though education and behavior modification are implicit in our model, ultimately, I hope that through my interactions with families for whom these issues have become paramount, the door to open, honest, empathetic, reflective and challenging conversation has been opened.

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

Chodakowski: Despite the growing concern over childhood obesity, it seems that a centralized, effective, multidisciplinary treatment is missing. I hope that our model adds to the conversation professionally and can be utilized as a jumping-off point for future interventions by a variety of professionals in the health and social services fields. Like Chelsea, I am excited to share what we have learned and developed with a diverse group of professionals at IARCCA, in hopes that those interventions best supported by theory and research can become more easily accessed.

I am grateful for the enthusiasm and dedication of our multidisciplinary colleagues who recognize the value of incorporating psychological and behavioral interventions into community programming targeting obesity. I have realized, more than ever before, that the inter-related nature of our complementary strategies for change necessitate this cooperative relationship.

Kane: We are grateful to have the support of the POWER Program staff. They are fully committed to continuing our parent classes, and we are so happy about that. We have already recruited a group of clinical psychology doctoral students to continue the classes, and we hope that each year’s facilitators will recruit for the following year.

At IARCCA, we will have the opportunity to share our work and philosophies with a variety of professionals and organizations who work closely with children and families. We hope to influence the kinds of programming that exist for children and families with our project, and to also learn and further develop our understanding of the complexities of childhood obesity and the social determinants of health that exist within the family system.

Chodakowski: I hope that the growth seen in the individuals with whom we have worked persists. I hope that the conversations begun in our weekly groups extend to their families at home and continue to impact the ways they think and speak about themselves as biological, social, and emotional beings.

ASF: What was the most surprising element of your experience as Schweitzer Fellows?

Chodakowski: In graduate school—and really in life—it is easy to become very insular, existing in a fairly homogenous bubble of values and knowledge. Through the Fellowship, I gained exposure to many individuals with diverse backgrounds and found my (somewhat previously unconscious) assumption—that personal and reflective conversations are taking place about attitudes surrounding health, nutrition, fitness, and body image—to be faulty.

So I guess, as odd as it sounds, I found the degree of usefulness of the subject matter we explored with participants to be surprising. I underestimated how much these parents would value the opportunity to speak openly with others about these at times sensitive issues. For some of the parents involved, it became evident that this weekly group was meeting a crucial (and, at times, otherwise unfulfilled) need for support in their journey toward improved overall health.

Kane: Probably the prestige of ASF. Because the Indiana Schweitzer Fellows Program is the newest ASF chapter, most of the Indiana Fellows were unaware what prestige, honor, and influence the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship commands. Slowly I realized the “club” I had become a member of and was so humbled to have been selected. Attending the ASF Conference in 2011 was an amazing experience [registration is now open for the 2012 Conference on Nov. 2-3]. I was so impressed by the quality of the projects and of the people involved with this organization, and I will proudly claim my affiliation as a Fellow for Life.

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

Kane: Advancing the multidisciplinary, integrated health care model. We simply cannot treat patients as if their medical/behavioral/social/psychological problems exist independently, and we must have a model and workforce enthusiastic about collaborative treatment. The evidence is clear that individuals need to be treated as whole beings. When all the patients’ needs are addressed and all complicating factors are given due attention, health outcomes improve, cost is reduced, and patients are more satisfied with their treatment.

Chodakowski: One of the issues about which I am personally very passionate is that of preventive health care. Issues of access to health care and multidisciplinary treatment are definitely intertwined with this passion, but I tend to focus on the individual, micro level in considering ways to addressing this issue. While many programs and initiatives have increased awareness regarding the extremely effective role of health behaviors related to nutrition and exercise, patient non-compliance with these behaviors remains a great frustration among health professionals.

The problem is much greater than a simple lack of motivation: issues of resources, time, and priorities often prevent healthy habits from ever taking root. As a society, I think that we struggle with slowing down, reflecting, and caring for ourselves, as we are seemingly driven by a cultural mandate to produce, remain “relevant”, and justify our time as “productive.” Altering such a fundamental aspect of our lifestyle, particularly as the current of culture pushes us in the other direction, is not easy. I see much of my own current and future work in the mental health field as promoting this counter-cultural “mindfulness” of being.

ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Kane: Being a Fellow for Life is an honor, and the distinction carries with it great responsibility. To be a Fellow for Life means that my professional life will always be marked by the acknowledgement of human dignity and vocational spirit. No longer can I simply walk through life, working the 9-to-5, just “doing my job.” Now, I have the honor, privilege, and obligation to “make my life my argument” and to infuse my work with my passion for service.

Chodakowski: As a Schweitzer Fellow for Life, my understanding of critical local health needs has developed, influencing me personally and professionally in ways that the classroom cannot. As a result of this experience, my commitment to future service in my community has been strengthened. It would be easy to consider volunteer service as something to pursue once the busyness of graduate training is complete—but the Fellowship has encouraged me to intentionally integrate the pursuit of this value into my life now.

Conceptualizing and implementing our psycho-educational program has been challenging and not without obstacles, but the support, feedback, and inspiration of the other Indiana Schweitzer Fellows and board members has been instrumental. Regardless of where my future journey takes me personally and professionally, I hope that the path is continually shaped and ignited by the same Reverence for Life that motivated Albert Schweitzer throughout his work in this world.

To learn more about the Indiana Schweitzer Fellows Program’s work to create change and improve health, click here.