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Counselors at New Britain High School were concerned about the future of Latina teens who were not passing PE and risked not graduating. Fortunately, a local nonprofit taught a group of Latina teens how to take photos and use them to inspire action—a technique called photovoice. Their efforts helped unite the nonprofit, the New Britain YWCA, and New Britain High School, who together pushed to establish an after-school PE credit recovery program. Now, Latina girls are getting the physical education they need to lead a healthy lifestyle, and the ongoing collaboration between community organizations has led to the development of a new hub for health called The House of Teens (HOT).
Awareness/Learn: The 37% Latino town of New Britain, Conn., was struggling with obesity in 2007.
Drs. Robert Dudley and Jayme Hannay, Salud America! grantees and researchers at the Community Health Center, Inc. in New Britain, were concerned when they learned the statistics.
Latinas at New Britain High School were more likely to be obese (18%) compared to their African American (9%) and white peers (0%), according to a University of Connecticut study.
Latina students also were less likely to be physically active than other girls, and over half of Latinas (54%) were failing PE.
“We knew from focus groups that there was a problem with PE,” Hannay said.
According to Dudley, at the time, data collected from surveys also showed that many Latina girls had a poor self-body image and negative attitudes about PE.
Frame Issue: Rising obesity rates were not the only problem in New Britain. The community faced higher than average teen pregnancy rates and a high school dropout rate that was four times the state average.
In spite of these some challenges, Dudley and Hannay believed that neighborhood youth could act as leaders to reverse some of these trends.
So they developed a program called Healthy Tomorrows for Teens (HTT), to teach youth about healthy eating and physical activity, and to train them to use Photovoice, a participatory action research (PAR) method in which people capture and discuss photographs, to identify barriers and facilitators to health and safety in the neighborhood, and then inspire action.
Education: After receiving a five-year grant in 2007 for the HTT program from the Maternal Child Health Bureau and American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Tomorrows Partnership Program, Dudley and Hannay built their partnership with New Britain High School.
Hannay approached Mike Foran, who was principal of The New Britain High School at the time, and explained that she was interested in recruiting a group of teens as part of an after school obesity prevention and leadership training intervention. She described how Photovoice could help empower the girls to work toward better health in the community and teach them to be civically engaged.
“The photovoice project is something we supported.” Foran said. “That relationship evolved as we began to discuss this other issue around the health of some of our female students and the challenges they were facing in PE classes.”
Hannay also contacted Robin Sharp, executive director of the local YWCA (the Y) to see if the Y would be interested in partnering with the CHC as part of the Photovoice project. Because the Y was looking to attract more high-school students to their soon-to-be-renovated campus, they agreed to share their facilities as a place where the group could meet to conduct their Photovoice activities. Sharp also offered to provide free Y memberships for HTT participants.
“The high school population [at the Y] was not really represented,” Sharp said. “So it was the perfect opportunity.”
Additionally, the Y had gym equipment, fitness classes like Zumba, and nutrition classes to offer.
According to Dudley hosting activities at the Y was a better option for the teens, who had already been at school for most of the day.
Mobilization: From July-August 2009, five teens participating in a summer internship program with HTT completed their first round of Photovoice projects. Teens were asked to take photos of the top things that acted as barriers or facilitators to healthy living and to work as a group to organize their photos into a story.
The teens then presented their findings to the CHC’s community advisory board and New Britain’s Spanish Speaking Center.
“The Photovoice empowered the teens to have their voice heard,” Hannay said.
With support from Salud America! and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in 2010, another group of HTT teens similarly conducted Photovoice projects with a focus on identifying barriers to physical activity in their community.
Some of the things that they identified as obstacles included: unsafe streets, graffiti, vandalism, and parks with empty swimming pools.
“Pools in our neighborhoods are closed and full of trash. Fences are broken and kids can get in, which is unsafe. People can’t get to the parks with pools,” said Rose Burgos, one of the teens.
In a focus group, teens also identified low levels of physical activity among Latinas as a problem and made reference to the high rates of girls failing PE.
The lack of safe active spaces coupled with the need to provide Latina high-school students with more options for physical activity sparked a debate.
Debate: While teens like Burgos and Melanie Benitez were eager to speak up for healthy changes in their community, Hannay, Dudley, Foran and Sharp knew they also had to do something to help Latinas who were not graduating due to failing PE.
“We had looked at different options [for PE] for a number of years…but sometimes it runs deeper than that,” Foran said.
As a result, the HTT partners decided to come up with a plan to offer a PE credit recovery program at the Y, to girls from New Britain High, at risk of not graduating.
“We were pretty enthusiastic about the idea of an offsite, highly structured program, which by design would ensure that students were more active—getting some direct instruction on healthy habits, that we hoped students would continue—and basically meet all the requirements for PE credit,” Foran said.
Then there was the issue of transportation. If the PE recovery class was to be held at the Y, participating teens would need support for getting there after school.
Activation: In September 2010, Burgos and Benitez went before the New Britain City Council, prepared with maps and their Photovoice findings, to make their case for re-opening two abandoned pools.
Meanwhile, the HTT partners worked to plan how they would launch the PE credit recovery program.
Frame Policy: At the council meeting, Burgos and Benitez presented a map that showed how the abandoned pools were located in densely populated areas. All the community pools that were currently open were located in neighborhoods where less people lived.
The teens further explained how having access to these amenities might encourage physical activity in their community and prevent childhood obesity.
For the credit recovery program, Sharpe and Valerie Rodino, Fitness Director for the YWCA of New Britain, outlined standards for the program based on PE requirements for state of Connecticut.
According to Rodino, they also added some nutrition instruction.
In order for girls to receive half a PE credit, they had to log a minimum of 60 hours at the Y, over a three-month period. Girls who needed a full credit had to complete of 120 hours at the Y. Although the program only lasts for three months at a time, Sharpe said the Y decided to provide the girls with a full one-year membership, in hopes that they would continue attending, even after fulfilling the requirements of the credit recovery program.
Change: In the Spring 2011, the HTT partners launched the PE credit recovery program for girls attending New Britain High School.
“The fact that we were able to work with them [New Britain High and the YWCA] to get these types of activities and that the girls are able to graduate was one of the big changes,” Hannay said.
Because the YWCA was located en route to other bus stops, the school district arranged bus transportation for the teens to the P.E. credit recovery program.
Although the city did not open up the swimming pools as Burgos and Benitez had hoped for, for the first time ever, Latina teens were empowered to have their voices heard by city leaders in New Britain.
Dudley said: “They [the City Council] were really engaged in hearing what the girls had to say, because they never hear from this group, but they want to.”
Thanks to the work of the HTT teens and partners, Latinas teens in New Britain continue to conduct Photovoice research in their community.
Implementation: At the YWCA, Rodino meets with the girls in the PE credit recovery program on a weekly basis to instruct them on how to use exercise equipment and about nutrition.
“We originally started with 20 girls and had a waiting list,” Rodino said.
Girls in the credit recovery program are given a swipe card that tracks how much time they spend at the Y.
“We started adding different components for the requirements, with personal time in the gym limited to a maximum of 2 hours per day,” Rodino said. “It’s evolved into sustainable habits and community activities as well.”
The girls have the opportunity to participate in 5Ks, yoga classes, and
Zumba. They’ve even had the chance to participate in a walk with the city’s mayor.
Sharpe said many students continued to be involved at the Y even after the course was finished.
“If you think about it, it’s wonderful because they get integrated nutrition, physical education, and life skills as part of this curriculum,” Sharpe said.
Equity: Rodino said the program is successful because the girls get their lives prioritized and make lasting friendships.
“Personal support is really important,” she said. “When they [the girls] find that support with each other, we make it more attainable and important for them to graduate.”
Sustainability: According to Hannay, the successful partnerships formed through the HTT’s Photovoice initiative and the support they received from Salud America! and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2009, helped leverage a $250,000 grant (2013-2018) to develop a new teen center dubbed the “House of Teens” (HOT) at the Y. HOT will offer services like family planning, nutrition, fitness, stress reduction, and leadership and advocacy training to teens throughout the community.
“Medicine is moving toward community health,” Dudley said. “The only way we’re going to make an impact is by realizing that medical interventions alone aren’t enough.”
Hannay and Dudley believe that teens benefit greatly from Photovoice and that when offered multiple times in a defined community, it helps create a social network to sustain itself.
“I would love to see Photovoice become a part of the school’s regular curriculum,” Hannay said.
In October 2013, Mallory Deprey, a Program Coordinator with the YWCA, worked with Hannay to co-facilitate Photovoice to a new group of teens. According to Hannay, some of these teens were aware of previous Photovoice projects and had positive perceptions of it.
More recently, in February 2014, the teens met with New Britain’s mayor to discuss having their pools re-opened. While visiting with the mayor they learned about the city’s budget and about some of the financial constraints which have prevented the city from re-opening pools.
Nonetheless, Mayor Erin Stewart encouraged the girls to reach out to first lady Michelle Obama and offered her support in doing so.
Video: Salud America Project–Teen Leaders Speak at a City Council Meeting
Combining Photovoice and Focus Groups Engaging Latina Teens in Community Assessment
The Community Toolbox: Section 20. Implementing Photovoice in Your Community
Powerpoint Presentation: Healthy Tomorrows for Teens
Powerpoint Presentation with Photovoice Findings
Giving Latina Teens a (Photo) Voice to Impact the Community
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.