My journey toward founding the nonprofit, HealthStart, began when I was six years old. As a first grader I was taking the school bus home when two twin sisters in 2nd grade sat down on either side of me. They called me a “Dirty Jew”, “Christ killer” and told me I didn’t belong in their school.
Our Words Matter
Devasted by this experience, I left the bus in tears. Fortunately, my grandmother who lived with us, was home to comfort me. She explained that the girls who verbally attacked me learned the words they used from their parents and that what they said was not true. My grandmother talked with me about our religious history and how people’s religious beliefs were personal and should not be ridiculed.
She helped me understand how adults speak to children and how children speak to one another matter. My grandmother taught me our words matter.
Mental Wellbeing Is Key
Later, when I was 14, I interviewed for a summer internship at Houston’s psychiatric research hospital, the Texas Research Institute for Mental Sciences (TRIMS). During the interview, the hospital director asked me what I thought about people with mental illness.
It just so happened I had just finished reading, “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” by Joanne Greenberg, a book about a young girl’s struggle with mental illness. I told him I thought that people with mental illness were like anyone else except they had problems they needed help with. I got the internship and worked as a ward clerk in the acute psychiatric unit at TRIMS from 3 pm to 11 pm all summer.
The job at TRIMS taught me that a person’s mental health is key to their wellbeing.
Kid’s Amazing Capacity to Learn
In 1992 when became a mother, I already knew from my childhood how important being active and having a healthy diet are for good health, but I had a lot to learn about raising a child.
My son attended preschool at the Phoenix School in Austin where the lead teacher, Kim Longacre, taught me the amazing capacity of children to learn. She taught me that with the right approach, children could be taught complex concepts that included taking care of themselves, each other, their classroom, and their planet. Kim also affirmed that our words matter.
Building a Healthier Future
Much later in 2009, after stints as a legislative staffer for the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Public Health and owner of a public policy/health consulting firm, I read a study that found that children born after 2000 were likely to have shorter lives than their parents due to childhood obesity and other threats to child health. This led me to seek a way to change this outcome and to build a healthier future for our children, ultimately to founding HealthStart Foundation in 2010.
Normally I begin my story about how I came to start HealthStart by citing this study, but what lead me here is more nuanced. It is the accumulation of my experiences that taught me health has three parts: 1. what we eat, 2. how we move our bodies, and 3. our social and emotional wellbeing or mental health.
Passion Leads to Purpose
HealthStart tackles all three parts of a child’s health – nutrition, fitness, and social and emotional health. Kim Longacre became HealthStart’s Director of Education and developed our Health Education for Youngsters! (HEY!) Curriculum with the oversight and guidance of HealthStart’s Scientific Committee. Our curriculum teaches children how their bodies work, the food and fitness habits needed for good health, and the importance of taking care of one another and our planet if we are to build healthy communities.
We know our diet and fitness habits affect our health. Most people also know that air and water pollution contribute to our health. However, many people do not realize social stressors also impact our wellbeing. For example, recent studies have found race-based stressors (racism and race discrimination) have an impact on people’s psychological and physical health and can lead to depression, high blood pressure, and anxiety. (Carter et al., 2005; Clark, Anderson, & Williams, Clark, 1999; Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009).
Today HealthStart teaches that words matter. One of my favorite lessons can be found in the “Meet Your Brain” unit of our HEY! Curriculum. Titled “Words That Pollute,” this lesson begins by asking teachers to “Remind students that words can be tools or they can be weapons. Tools are for building and fixing, weapons are for hurting and destroying.” The teacher uses puppets to show children how to use words to resolve conflict and find common ground.
Part of taking care of each other is how we use our words. As adults this means modeling behavior for our children so that they learn to use words as tools. Too often today we see our leaders using words as weapons – in ways meant to hurt and destroy. We see this when their words are used to call out a particular a religious group or group of people because of the color of their skin.
One of the ways to protect our children’s health is to combat the use of words as weapons. This means curricula like HealthStart’s HEY! Curriculum and programs like our Children’s Health Education Workshops (CHEWS) that teach children 3 to 10 years of age about all three parts of health.
The collective experience of my childhood, early exposure to people struggling with mental illness, learning the importance of diet to health, my college and graduate education, and becoming a mother led me to champion child health through HealthStart. With our staff, volunteers, and board, HealthStart has developed the blueprints for building healthier communities through children's science-based health education.
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If you have experienced discrimination, how did it effect you physically or psychologically?
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