Young HEROES Promote Healthy Living

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Youth Service America and UnitedHealth Group are tackling childhood obesity from a new direction: by asking children and youth across America to take action and address this critical issue. The UnitedHealth HEROES Service-Learning Grants, launched two years ago to support youth-led programs, have supported the initiatives of more than 360 schools and community organizations. Asking young people to have a meaningful impact on communities by implementing innovative ideas is an important part of service-learning, a teaching and learning strategy that makes connections between community service and curriculum.

Students at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Delaware, took their knowledge about exercise and healthy eating to 400 elementary school students in their community. Students in the nursing, culinary, and public service programs extended their in-school learning to younger kids, internalizing their learning while serving as mentors to younger students. “Watching our high school students working with the younger elementary students was rewarding and inspirational,” wrote Stan Levine, Howard’s service-learning coordinator. He goes on to state that support from the local community, leveraged because of the HEROES grant, “helped to motivate and drive our students toward their goal of educating younger learners. “

In 2010, almost 35,000 youth participated in UnitedHealth HEROES-funded programs, educating and serving close to 1.4 million members of the community. They created gardens, hosted health fairs, coordinated cooking demonstrations, and planned walk-a-thons to raise awareness about the importance of healthy diet and exercise.

The HEROES grants also engaged educators. Niama Sandy, the Out-of-School Time Coordinator in DC Public Schools worked with students at King Elementary School. She facilitated learning opportunities between students and personal trainers and dietitians and helped the students coordinate a Healthy Body Expo that featured student-led exercise demonstrations, healthy food samples, and participation from community organizations. Sandy was amazed not only at her ability to infuse her creativity in the classroom, but also at how much recognition her program received.

“Our project was highlighted in the Washington Post, and shortly thereafter I received recognition as a ‘Home Town Hero’ from Washington’s WNBA team, the Mystics. I am humbled,” said Sandy. “The outcomes from this project have empowered me to reach even further in my sojourn to engage our students and the larger community in changing attitudes and habits on exercise and nutrition.”

This year, UnitedHealth HEROES grants are open to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Applications should be submitted by 5 pm, October 22, 2010. To learn more about the HEROES grants or to apply, visit www.YSA.org/HEROES. You can also download First Responders: Youth Addressing Childhood Obesity Through Service-Learning, a free educational guide about creating a successful program.

Steve Culbertson is the Youth Service America President and CEO.

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