Schweitzer Fellows for Life Melissa Hector-Greene and Kimberly Cocce

Schweitzer Fellows Melissa Hector-Greene and Kimberly Cocce

Schweitzer Fellows Kimberly Cocce and Melissa Hector-Greene are medical students at Duke University School of Medicine. For their Fellowship project, they partnered with Playworks Durham on a tennis program for children ages seven through 10 designed to increase physical activity. “I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest barriers for children in becoming more active is a lack of mentors and role models who demonstrate that physical fitness provides health benefits and can be fun at the same time,” Cocce says. “Tennis is a wonderful sport for children because it provides cardiovascular exercise, as well as training in agility, strength, and mental focus.”

Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
Melissa: Moving to North Carolina for medical school really opened my eyes to the reality of the state of children’s health in America. Children and teenagers are now suffering from diseases usually reserved for older folk, such as hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. Instead of sports physicals and well-visits, more children were coming in to the pediatric clinics for weight control consultations and A1C tests. Furthermore, overweight children, many of whom are minority or low- income, face other barriers, such as lack of safe spaces to play, lack of family and community support for regular physical activity and lack of health education. In order to stem the trend toward obesity-related illnesses among children, we need to permanently adjust their and their families’ attitudes toward healthy lifestyle habits.

I thought back to my own experience growing up, and realized that the physical activities I stuck with were the ones that I found enjoyable and that were easily sustainable. Unlike traditional team sports like football and soccer, tennis only required two people and was virtually free. It’s also an incredible workout and teaches valuable life skills such as patience and perseverance. I was excited about sharing my passion for this sport with children who might never have been exposed. Perhaps they too could find a physical activity to stick with for life. I imagined a physical activity mentorship program that provided children with a supportive space to learn the lifelong sport of tennis and to learn about the positive immediate and long-term benefits of exercise.

Kimberly: We worked with third and fourth graders who had little if any exposure to the sport of tennis. Typically, playing tennis on a large court with fast balls can be intimidating for young kids. For this reason the United States Tennis Association came up with a program called Ten and Under Tennis. Ten and Under Tennis introduces children 10 years old and younger to the game with a smaller court and racket, as well as slower ball. It also provides access to a low impact, life-long sport.

Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
Kimberly: It is my hope that our project will inspire elementary students to take ownership of their physical and mental health, and to spread their newfound love for physical activity to their peers, families, and larger community. One of the most redeeming and admirable qualities of the Schweitzer Fellowship is the focus on creating sustainable programs that fill a need of the community. We are incredibly fortunate to have partnered with our local chapter of Playworks, in Durham, North Carolina. Playworks in a national non -profit which has been remarkably successful in establishing programs that provide organized physical activity both at recess and before and after school in underserved elementary schools. With their expertise, we implemented a program that is effective in school aged children. By providing another sport, including resources and additional training, our program adds diversity to the Playworks repertoire. Combined with the excitement of junior students to continue our project, Playworks annual presence will ensure that our efforts to create a new outlet for discovering the joy of physical activity are sustainable over the long-term.

Melissa: I hope our program helps change attitudes in low-income Durham communities about the value of active play in the short-term and long-term physical well-being of children. Not only do I want the children and parents to learn more about tennis as an option for daily exercise, but I want to increase awareness about other areas affecting health, such as nutrition and stress management. I have been heartened to learn that several of my associates in the current local tennis community got their starts through grassroots organizations such as this. Ultimately though, the most important impact would be to see a decrease in the number of children plagued with diseases resulting from persistent inactivity.

Q: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Melissa: I believe the most pressing health-related issue now is the rising incidence of diabetes and metabolic diseases in the population. Almost every body system is adversely affected by diabetes, and it is a major source of disability. The fact that younger and younger people are affected by these diseases is cause for great concern, from a public health perspective and an economic perspective. This trend, which has been building for several decades now, needs to slow down in order for us to maintain a healthy, productive nation.

This is a difficult problem to address because reversing the trend resists established societal norms such as sedentary jobs and entertainment and over-nutrition. However, I think educating families, especially the children, on healthy lifestyle habits may make a difference. I also think that promoting physical activity in a spirit of play and enjoyment, rather than duty will encourage people incorporate more activity into their lives, thereby decreasing their chances of disease.

Kimberly: The astounding numbers of individuals who are overweight or obese is the most pressing health-related issue of our time. In a recent report, North Carolina was named the 16th most obese state in the country. The state’s obesity rate has increased by more than 80 percent in the past 15 years and continues to grow at alarming rates. Given the significant comorbidities associated with obesity, including heart disease, asthma, osteoarthritis, and even certain types of cancer, it is no surprise that obesity is a leading preventable cause of death worldwide. Targeting youth is the most effective way to address this issue. Adult habits are incredibly difficult to break; however, teaching children from a young age the value of physical activity and the importance of a healthy diet can help prevent those bad habits before they are formed. Children can learn by example that exercise can be fun and eating foods that are nutritious is good! When working with children, it is of the upmost importance to involve the entire family to ensure their individual success. Also, by involving parents in the learning process, the lessons can extend to the entire family.

Q: What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
Kimberly: The community’s strong response and enthusiasm for our project. Since the outset of our planning, the idea for our project was met with great excitement. Members of our community were immediately motivated to connect us with the best resources for developing our program and have continued to be incredibly encouraging along the way. One of my favorite examples is the success of our tennis racquet drive. Recognizing a great need for equipment, but with limited funds, we reached out to local tennis clubs for donations of racquets appropriately sized for children. We collected more than 60 racquets solely from the generous donations by tennis lovers in our local community!

Melissa: The most surprising aspect of being a Schweitzer Fellow has been how open other community organizations have been to helping us achieve our goals. Even though our community partners had never heard of the Schweitzer program before we introduced them to it, having a well- established organization behind us added legitimacy to our proposals and made them more at ease working with us.

Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?
Melissa: Being chosen as a Schweitzer Fellow was a great honor, and a testament to the organization’s confidence in our project’s potential for lasting positive impact on the community. In turn, that trust motivates me to ensure the success of our program. As a member of the Fellowship, I’ve benefitted greatly from the support and expertise of former fellows, as well as guidance from our leaders. Hearing past and present fellows’ stories about “boulders” and how they overcame them has been a real source of relief and hope. As a Fellow for Life, I know I will always have peers who share a passion for earnest and meaningful service to others.

Kimberly: Serving as a Schweitzer Fellow was a unique opportunity to provide meaningful service to members of our local community, combined with significant professional and personal development. My work as a Fellow will inform my future work as a healthcare provider. I’ve learned so much about the barriers that individuals in my community face to living healthy lives. By working with children in particular, I have been exposed to the detrimental habits people develop and the struggles they face from an early age. My interaction with these children will inform how I can work together with my patients to find healthy alternatives in their own lives. I have also begun to gain a greater knowledge about services that are available in the local community.

By serving as a Fellow for Life, I will always have an outlet and resource to share ideas, advice, successes and failures, so everyone — both the service providers and recipients — can benefit from past experiences. My lifetime involvement will give me longevity to gain further insight into the backgrounds and basic health attitudes of the North Carolina population. By better understanding my community through my own experiences and the experiences of others, both in the present and many years down the future, I will be better prepared to serve and to practice medicine in North Carolina.

Click here to learn more about the North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.