Helping Hands, Healthy Habits

At the Waltham Boys & Girls Club, teens play a major role in a health and wellness campaign

Youth from the Waltham Boys and Girls Club meet with John Riordan, director of community relations and partnerships and Jane Venti, senior director for Boston Children’s at Waltham

Youth from the Waltham Boys and Girls Club meet with John Riordan, director of community relations and partnerships and Jane Venti, senior director for Boston Children’s at Waltham.

Learning how to eat healthier. Finding more time for physical activity. Coping with challenges and setbacks. These are all skills that teens need to learn…but from whom?

The Waltham Boys & Girls Club believes it has hit on an answer: other teens. A grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health will fund a campaign in which youth will lead on outreach and healthy decision-making.

Challenging times for teens

When it comes to exercise and food choices, there are alarming trends for young people. According to a recent Johns Hopkins study, obesity rates have doubled since 1980 among children — and have tripled for teens. In the past 20 years, the proportion of 12 to 19 year-olds who are obese increased from 5 to 18 percent.

Genetic and biological factors, as well as mental health disorders, play a role, but it’s a small one. More troublesome, researchers say, is a lack of access to healthy foods among vulnerable families. Studies noted by the National Institute of Health have “linked food insecurity with a lower consumption of healthy food groups and poor diet quality.”

Experts say today’s teenagers are knowledgeable when it comes to the benefits of healthy eating and exercise as well as the ills associated with a sedentary lifestyle. But as many parents know, understanding the risks and acting accordingly are two different things. No matter how well-meaning the adult — parent, counselor, or other — it’s hard to get the message through and, crucially, acted upon. Youth-led programs “are proven to be more impactful in engaging [teens] who need the services most,” says Erica Young, Executive Director at the Waltham Boys & Girls Club.

Peer to peer communication

This is what prompted the club’s initiative, in which teens will help their peers improve their eating and fitness habits. The club will be bringing in expertise from Boys & Girls Club’s professional staff, other community organizations, and outside consultants to train, for starters, 25 14- to 18-year-olds in outreach and workshop facilitation. Those teens will compile a list of all available club programs; track attendance; and strategize on how to engage more of their peers. Moreover, they’ll seek out gaps in programs or services, and offer suggestions on filling those gaps.

The youth involvement won’t stop there, either. Teens will be gathering information. They’ll conduct focus groups and distribute surveys with an eye toward collecting information on their peers’ current habits. “They’ll help us find out why teens are currently engaging in various behaviors,” says Young, “and reasons they may not be participating in the services and programs we offer.” Club participants will also implement a marketing campaign on fitness and healthy habits. That campaign will include online and printed materials, and the teens will work with an advertising agency to plan, design and implement it.

The club already has many workshops, and Young believes that having teens run them will boost attendance, bringing the benefits to a whole new crowd. “We’re teaching healthy habits, healthy eating, meditation, healthy routines, coping strategies,” says Young. Transitioning these to youth-facilitated workshops “will make them more appealing, increasing participation.” .“Boston Children’s Hospital is proud to partner with the Waltham Boys & Girls Club through the Collaboration for Community Health and we applaud this creative approach to developing healthy habits at an early age,” says Jane Venti, Senior Director, Boston Children’s at Waltham.

In just one example of outreach, the club already has in place “We Own Fridays,” a monthly weekend event open to Waltham youth who want to play basketball, take Zumba lessons and sing a little karaoke — rather than engaging in riskier practices. Rachel Cosgrove, a high school senior and longtime club participant, is a big fan of We Own Fridays. “They bring in kids we don’t see at other activities,” she says. “Now we just need to bring them back, and I think we can.”

Gauging success

The club is well aware of the need to measure the success of the program — and youth will even play a key role there. Young adds that they’ll carefully track participation in programs and services. And through interviews, focus groups and surveys, the youth will gauge attitude and behavior changes to see what’s working.

The Waltham Boys & Girls Club “has been a safe space for me for years,” says Cosgrove, “and I know it is for a lot of other kids too. Now it’s our turn to pay it forward.”