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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

YES!: Training Youth to Advocate and Change Their Community

YES! youth advocating for real food.

What happens when you train high schoolers and engage them to develop skills, gain critical awareness and participate in opportunities to create community change? You get motivated teens and you get results!
Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!), a statewide nonprofit with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville, trains high-schoolers (and their adult allies) and provides them with the tools they need to take a stand in their community to make a positive impact on adolescent health. YES! implements programs to empower youth on areas aligned with the health behaviors identified as critical by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health, including nutrition and physical activity, among others.

Smarter Lunchroom Design & Other Youth Projects

 Among the training programs YES! offers is its Real Food, Active Living initiative, which engages and empowers young people in community change efforts to increase access to real food and active living and decrease the childhood obesity epidemic. According to Katie Spears, Team Lead for the program, the Charlotte-based group of four youth staff involved in this initiative initiative–Rich, Kelin,

YES! youth training others to make a healthy change in their community.

Jessica and John– are hard at work this summer redesigning the lunchroom at Myers Park High School.
Research shows that changing the configuration and design of school lunchrooms can increase the sales of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Visit and learn about Cornell University’s data.) “So the students are researching what the lunchroom should look like, with a heavy focus on product placement, such as fresh foods at the checkout and in the front of the line, and features such as healthy express lines,” said Spears. “The youth wanted to start building a relationship with Child Nutrition Services to eventually be able to address the larger issue of the foods available in the cafeteria. With the USDA standards being revised, they wanted to make some progress now and start changing their environment. They felt this project was a way they could forge a relationship with CNS without putting a burden on them,” Spears continued.
To that end, this summer they are working on a video to promote the project and working with the school’s cafeteria manager on what the redesign plan will look like. They also are analyzing sales of fruits and vegetables and competitive foods sold in the lunchroom during this past school year as a baseline for data, and are working to develop a framework for collecting that data going forward to gauge the impact of the smarter lunchroom approach.
The Real Food, Active Living team also trained The Core, a group of high school youth advocates from across Mecklenburg County to prepare them for their advocacy efforts related to healthy vending in the schools. In April, The Core addressed the School Board on this, and they are now working with the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) to draft a policy on healthy vending and discussing the possibility of bringing in other vendors with healthy options and organizing taste tests to gather data on what students will purchase.
In addition, YES! helped The Core in its work at Madison Park Elementary School. An abandoned lot has been converted to green space, and The Core is now designing walking trail signs for the park. YES! also helped the Madison Park Core team write and receive a $5,000 equipment grant to add additional raised beds to its garden and create a farm stand and mobile teaching cart.
The Asheville Real Food, Active Living team is working on a project important to them; they are working on the Second Chance Breakfast at Asheville High School. Spears said the campus is so large and that many students do not eat breakfast before their first block of classes. So this initiative involves setting up three breakfast stations after the first block at different locations on campus to enable students to buy healthy foods, since the cafeteria is not yet open at that time.

The YES! Model

YES! Youth staff team members from Asheville and Charlotte: (front row from left): Calvin Clark, Carmen Procida (not pictured: Jessica Harris); (back row from left): John Hargett, Kelin Coleman, Rich Burris, Cyesha Baird, Tyshaun Johnson

During the school year, YES! youth staff work two to three days a week after school for a few hours, and over the summer, they have more hours to dedicate to their work. Spears said the key to all of the organization’s work is the philosophy that youth determine which projects they will work on; their interest in a given issue leads to their full engagement and vested interest in the outcome. This philosophy is carried out with YES! youth staff as well as through the advocacy training YES! offers.
The Real Food, Active Living initiative launched in December 2008, and just since July 2010, 191 youth and 100 adults have been trained in various counties around the state. In Wake County, YES! has trained adult allies on youth empowerment for grantees of the Healthy Places, Active Spaces grantees.
YES! provides training and technical services in a variety of areas; we encourage you to visit their web site and learn more. We also look forward to hearing the outcomes of the smarter lunchroom project and how that may translate here in Wake County!

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