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Eat Better, Move More, Smile Often

Wellness camp targets data-driven needs

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“How many calories should we consume each day?”

Maggie Bushey, a graduate student studying public health, posed this question to a group of students at Cherry Creek Elementary School in Lowell.

“5,” said Izzy.

“25!” said Jazzlyn.

Bushey explained calories and portion sizes to the third through fifth graders who signed up to participate in Wellness Camp, a four-week, after-school program that focuses on nutrition, exercise and mental health.

Down the hall, graduate student Kelsey Young helped students define social aggression or bullying.

“Screaming and yelling?” asked Brianne.

“Doing it in front of other people,” said Ayden.

Students then learned how people who bully sometimes feel bad about themselves.

Around the corner, in another classroom, graduate students Brian Scherf and Christina Hoelzle asked students questions about safety; students needed to answer by doing physical exercises.

“If you’ve been to a place before, it’s OK not to let an adult know you’re going again,” stated Scherf.

To register an answer of “unsafe,” students had to do five push-ups. To answer “safe,” the students did 15 jumping jacks.

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Grand Valley-Lowell partnership

These unique activities offered at the camp were designed by Grand Valley public health graduate students and faculty members, based on a community-wide needs assessment survey completed by Lowell residents in 2015. Grand Valley’s Public Health Department partnered with Lowell Community Wellness to conduct the needs assessment in order to gauge the health needs of more than 2,500 adults and children.

A group of elementary students sits at a classroom table holding bags of healthy snacks with two GVSU graduate students behind them
Public health graduate students Staci O’Brien and Maggie Bushey help students at Cherry Creek Elementary School in Lowell pick out healthy snacks.

Staff members at Grand Valley’s Community Research Institute in the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy were also involved. CRI helped design the survey and analyzed the data that was released at the LoWellness Health Summit in 2016.

Jodi Seese, director of the Lowell Wellness Camp, said the goal was to survey community members to find out what they need, and then use that data to drive programs.

“We haven’t found anyone else in the state who has taken this approach,” said Seese. “Typically, a large health survey like this is done by county health departments, health plans or employers. This is the first time a private entity and a total community came together to determine what the health needs are so we can design programs to address them.”

Ranelle Brew, associate professor and chair of public health, said: “We had all of this valuable data and an opportunity to best utilize it for community impact. Last year, we were able to secure a grant to support health promotion programming through Wellness Camp.”

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Eat Better, Move More

Results from the youth survey pinpointed a few key areas to address: consumption of energy drinks, screen time and seat belt use. That led to the camp theme: Eat Better, Move More, Smile Often.

Staci O’Brien, a public health graduate student, served as the camp’s education coordinator. O’Brien, who researched and designed the health education lessons, said all of the activities help students understand how and why to make better choices.

“Research shows this age (third-fifth grade) is an important time for development,” said O’Brien. “They are sponges at this age, so it’s an instrumental time for students to latch on to information and make lifelong changes.”

“Showing them the difference between a Dorito and a sweet potato chip is an eye-opening experience at this age.”

Ranelle Brew, associate professor and chair of public health
A group of elementary students jump and march in place while GVSU graduate students interact with them.
Public health graduate students Christina Hoelzle and Brian Scherf have students at Wellness Camp answer safety questions by way of exercising.

During each week of the camp, students participate in games and activities that will hopefully lead to a change in beliefs and attitudes toward nutrition, exercise and mental health — exercises that can replace screen time, or healthy snacks like coconut chips and beet crackers that can replace junk food.

“Knowledge is power at any age,” said Brew. “Showing them the difference between a Dorito and a sweet potato chip is an eye-opening experience at this age. They are learning about better options and gaining knowledge to change behaviors.”

O’Brien said students take a survey before and after camp and results show students are retaining the information and making changes.

Shelli Otten, principal of Cherry Creek Elementary, said she has heard nothing but positive feedback from both students and parents about the camp.

“Students are excited to attend and parents say they are seeing a difference,” said Otten. “Students walk away with important information about nutrition and exercise, but also resolutions and strategies for facing adverse situations down the road because they’ve had this practice opportunity in a safe environment.”

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Smile often

The LoWellness survey showed a high number of youth identified a time when they wanted to talk to an adult or someone about feelings or emotions. So, mental health is another focus of Wellness Camp. Students are learning about mindfulness, coping strategies and the difference between bullying and bad behaviors.

“We want to make sure students know how to identify and differentiate feelings and know how to reach out to an adult if counseling or other services are needed,” said Seese.

O’Brien said the “anger as an iceberg” exercise has prompted good conversation.

“At the top of the iceberg are the things that we say or do,” O’Brien explained. “The bottom is everything that we don’t see or hear about — maybe something happened that day, or maybe someone is sad, angry or frustrated — but all we see is what comes out on top.”

O’Brien said the iceberg demonstration gives students compassion and understanding for someone else’s feelings besides their own, while being an effective way of showing why someone might bully others.

She said mindfulness exercises, like yoga, and coping strategies, like journaling, are teaching students how to be respectful, kind and move away from bad behaviors.

Otten said mindfulness is relatively new in the school setting. “I’m excited students are getting the opportunity to practice mindfulness,” she said. “We know from early literature that it has made a difference in discipline rates in schools across the country. So for them to get a taste of that as a strategy to stay calm is very powerful.”

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Future programming

About 70 students have attended Wellness Camp between the fall 2018 session and the winter 2019 session.

Seese and Brew said the longtime community partnership between Grand Valley and Lowell Community Wellness will help in their efforts to apply for another grant to continue health education programming for children and adults.

Otten said students at Cherry Creek have formed a real bond with graduate students and she’s thrilled with follow-up results from camp.

“The relationships they’ve developed with Grand Valley wellness coaches have been a real positive,” Otten said. “We’re finding that our students are remembering the important concepts, so our hope is that they make choices that benefit them personally.”

Brianne, like the other young students who have completed Wellness Camp, are well on their way. “Be yourself and don’t be influenced by others,” she said.

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