By Grace Schierberl, Community HealthCorps® Member, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center
As a Community HealthCorps® Member with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC), one of my service placements is with the Let’s Get Movin’ program. This program engages overweight and obese adolescents, age 8-11, in an afterschool lifestyle change program that promotes healthy eating, physical fitness and nutrition education. After six months of interacting closely with obese children, I have learned that a child’s fitness level is equally important as their self-perception, and, often, the two are directly related, as I saw with *Michael.
I first noticed Michael as he walked into the gym with a smooth confidence despite his young age and overweight physique. I called him over to discuss the program’s goal of getting healthier and stronger, a conversation quite typical for most kids on their first day at Let’s Get Movin’. Within seconds, I noticed that he was participating in the warm-up game. Most kids, shy and embarrassed about their bodies, cling to the coach’s side or try to remain as invisible as possible on the first day. But Michael isn’t most kids. A few minutes later, I brought Michael into a private room to complete a survey necessary for our program’s research. The last page of the survey asks a list of questions regarding a child’s self-perception and if they wish they were someone else. One of the questions asks if the child believes him or herself to be the type of kid that stands on the sidelines during a sport and watches or the type of kid who participates and plays to the fullest. I noticed Michael was struggling with this question and didn’t bubble in his answer with the ease that came so naturally with the other questions. He looked at me and asked, “I’m the type of kid who wants to play, but no one ever lets me. What should I put?” In an attempt to stay as emotionally neutral as possible, I instructed him to answer the question however he felt was most true. My heart sunk as I saw him bubble in that he sits on the sidelines.
I was compelled to apply to be an AmeriCorps member with EBNHC’s Community HealthCorps® program because of my interest in public health and learning more about the risks associated with obesity. Throughout college, I had learned about hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and asthma in textbooks. But, after six months of service, I’ve realized obesity, especially for children, encompasses much more than a BMI on a medical chart. Being a 10-year-old is challenging, let alone being a 10-year-old with a serious weight problem. The majority of kids who participate in Let’s Get Movin’ have improved their fitness levels over the past few months; they can run more laps and hold a plank for twice as long. As incredible as that is, it is equally important to recognize the change in self-perception that directly correlates with an improved level of fitness. Let’s Get Movin’ is much more than a program dedicated to nutrition and fitness. This program provides a space where kids, who are often forgotten on the playground and bullied into not playing at recess, are thought of as teammates, as friends and as champions of change.
My experience working with this young, underserved population of overweight and obese children has shaped my perspective on public health and better prepared me to pursue a Masters in Public Health in the upcoming years. Inspired by Michael’s pursuit to improve his self-image, I now understand health not through the lens of statistics, but through names and experiences.
*Name changed for confidentiality.