My name is Sarah Weber and I am the Communications Specialist at the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at Johns Hopkins. During my time here, I have seen first-hand, the influence B’more Healthy Communities for Kids (BHCK) has had on the community of Baltimore City. I have attended cooking classes, as part of the intervention, taught by the youth leaders at local Recreation Centers in efforts to teach children how to cook healthy meals. I have witnessed the formation of relationships between BHCK and other organizations across Baltimore with similar missons- to combat the food deserts in Baltimore City. Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to interview youth leaders that work with BHCK. Each youth leader is unique, driven and shares a common goal- to impact their community by promoting healthy lifestyles. Here are their stories:
Baltimore City Community College
Donnichia's career major may be criminal justice but it's easy to see her passion is for helping others. While attending college, Donnichia worked with New Lens, a local Baltimore organization that is youth driven with an emphasis on art and media. New Lens connected Donnichia with BHCK, which is what initiated her youth leadership. “I wanted to become a youth leader because I really love children and care about their health and them living healthy lifestyles,” says McAfee.
When asked her role with BHCK, McAfee stated “I have more than one role. My role changes because of the kids- I become a friend, a cook, and a role model.” While working as a youth leader, Donnichia made some healthy lifestyle changes of her own- she now drinks more water and looks at the food labels before purchasing. Cara Shipley, BHCK’s Research Coordinator, identifies Donnichia as the “rock of the group.” Shipley said “she jumped in when the new youth leaders were unsure of things and slowly transitioned into taking a role in the background and allowed them all to grow and shine!”
Morgan State University
Naima became a Youth Leader because of an advertisement she saw while in class at Morgan State University. “It happened so fast,” says Holland. In no time, Naima was working at local rec centers across Baltimore City. One of Naima’s favorite things about being a youth leader is “working with the kids and seeing how excited they get when we show up.” Holland stated she "enjoys hearing them tell stories about what new healthy foods they tried that they learned from BHCK." Naima is also known to be one to tell stories of her own- “Naima always has a crazy story and can bring a good laugh to our group” says Shipley.
Naima is working to become a public health nurse that works in the community to make a difference. “I need to be out in the community promoting prevention and ways to live healthier and longer lives,” says Holland. Naima’s experience being a youth leader has helped her with her ability to interact and approach the topic of healthy living without being “over bearing.” Shipley said that "she appreciates Naima's honesty and how she always keeps it real." Shipley also said “Naima is invested in the community and wants to make a difference in kids’ lives, but is also realistic about her limitations about what is possible to accomplish given a certain situation or timeline.” Naima has learned the importance of breakfast and cutting back on sweets during her time as a youth leader.
Baltimore City Community College
Ajee got involved with BHCK because she appreciated the mission and wanted to see how she could help others. Ajee enjoys being a youth leader not only because she likes working with kids but because she wants to make a difference in her community. Shipley says “her warm and caring spirit paired with her maternal instincts allow her to connect with kids in the rec in a very special way.” Trying new things excites Ajee, therefore, teaching others to do the same is really something she strives for.
When asked how BHCK helped her to achieve her personal and community goals, Johnson answered “by showing kids how to encourage others.” Johnson said the kids are “seeing what it takes to impact the community and themselves.” Ajee has made her own healthy lifestyle changes which include consuming water on a regular basis as well as cooking at home a lot more as opposed to eating out. If superlatives were given, Ajee would get most improved- “she has grown so much in her facilitation skills, projection of her voice, and has become the go-to youth leader for discipline in the recreation centers,” says Shipley.
Morgan State University
Joel, like Naima, found out about the BHCK while attending Morgan State University. The opportunity to become a youth leader aligned with Joel’s personal goals which are to get involved and “uplift” the community. I got to experience Joel, also known as Chef Boyardee to the kids, in action as he taught a cooking class at the Greenmount Recreation Center. Joel was kind and patient with the kids, it was inspiring to watch. The interactive sessions at the Rec Centers are what the BHCK is about- teaching the community about how to live healthy lifestyles one recipe at a time.
Joel’s willingness to try new things inspired the kids to do the same. Some of the recipes incorporated ingredients that the kids have never tried like red bell peppers or raw spinach. He would dive right in which made the kids a little less skeptical to try. Joel's positive attitude helped to encourage the kids as well. "He had a positive energy and goofiness that always made the group laugh, even on the toughest days," says Shipley. While being a youth leader, Joel has taught others and himself about how to incorporate healthy changes into your lifestyle. For instance, Joel now cuts back on sugar and realizes the importance of drinking water.
Morgan State University
Tasin became a youth leader not only because she wanted to work with children but because she wanted to be a part of the BHCK movement. Tasin often emphasizes the importance of proper nutrition and incorporating it into your lifestyle. Engagement and making learning fun is something that Tasin enjoyed doing while being a youth leader. Shipley said “Tasin has a magnetic personality. At the end of every rec session, she left with about five new best friends and was always ambushed with kids wanting to give her hugs or high fives.”
When asked about her favorite thing while being a youth leader, Muhammad stated “My favorite thing is when I feel like I truly taught something valuable to the kids and they can apply it.” Tasin believes in practicing what she preaches because she wants to be a prime example of what good health looks like. While being a youth leader, Tasin said the BHCK taught her the most accurate and up-to-date information about nutrition and even agriculture. Now-a-days, Tasin is detoxing, drinking a gallon of water a day, and trying to be more versatile when she cooks.
Kenny Wilkes Jr.
Community College of Baltimore County
Kenny applied to become a youth leader because he wanted the opportunity to meet new people. On April 21st, 2014 (yes, Kenny remembered the exact date), he received a phone call from Betsy Anderson to schedule an interview. “The rest was history” Wilkes says. Betsy Anderson is the former Project Coordinator at BHCK who has worked with youth leaders like Kenny, Joel, Ajee, and Tasin. Betsy has since moved to Milwaukee to become an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin but won’t forget the youth leaders she has met along the way.
Kenny’s career major in music production came in handy with a lot of the BHCK staff. Shipley said “Kenny was always my technical support, setting up any videos and speakers we needed for certain activities which was huge since I do not get along well with technology.”
Throughout all of my interviews with the youth leaders, almost all said one of the hardest tasks was bringing back focus to the group of kids during a session. This obstacle didn’t seem to ever phase Kenny. In fact, Shipley said “I never saw him stressed out and his calm demeanor was extremely refreshing to be around!”
I reached out to Betsy to inquire about her time with the BHCK. Anderson said “I was consistently impressed with how they could work so well together and get the job done. They seem to have the shared goal of 'doing it for the kids'.” Betsy shared how difficult things were at times, especially for some youth leaders that had to take the bus for an hour to get to the local Recreation Centers or important meetings. “We had a lot of turnover in our project staff” Anderson said, but “these guys made it work.”
See here for Cara Shipley and Betsy Anderson's biosketch.