Lessons From HealthCorps Helped NYC Students Live Healthier Lives

Photo Courtesy of HealthCorps

“When I felt like I couldn’t do something anymore, I’d just give up,” says Analia Firpo, a junior at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. When it came to taking care of her mental health, Firpo wasn't sure where to start. “The lessons in HealthCorps about mental health — especially being from a Hispanic and very religious family [where] they don’t prioritize it — have been very helpful,” she says.

Firpo is not alone; many students at her high school have also experienced beneficial life changes after learning from HealthCorps. HealthCorps was founded in 2003 by Dr. Oz, with a goal of helping students to eat healthier, exercise more, and prioritize their mental health. After five years of work, the physical and mental health of the students that passed through New York City’s High School of Fashion Industries has changed drastically — for the better. About 60 percent of the student body has decreased the amount of sugary beverages they consume on a regular basis as the teenage students began switching to water and moving away from the sugar-filled sodas and juices, according to Cedra Starks, HealthCorps coordinator. That’s just one of many changes Starks has noticed over her last five years working at the high school. 

Through the organization’s in-school program, known as a Living Lab, a full-time coordinator is put into a high school in need of greater health education to mentor students and teach health education workshops, to change the overall health and wellness culture of the school. The organization is currently working with nearly 50 schools, spanning across 10 states. In New York City, students at the High School of Fashion Industries have been able to experience the benefits of HealthCorps first-hand. 

Starks teaches about 10 classes every week at the high school, speaking to students aged 14-18. “We follow a baseline curriculum, which starts off with nutrition, then fitness, and then into mental resilience,” she says. The lesson plans HealthCorp develops provide basic tools that can help the kids lead healthier lives. “During class we had a lot of workshops where we would learn what is best for you to eat when it comes to sugary drinks, fruits and vegetables, and what foods work better on mental health,” says Tamara Stallings, a junior at the high school. “Because of the classes I’ve been eating breakfast a lot more and thinking about what’s on nutrition labels on the foods and drink items that I purchase,” continues Stallings.

Students at the high school also learned skills like how to read nutrition labels and were taught how to cook healthy meals through the program’s cooking club. “That’s what I think is great about HealthCorps’ curriculum,” says Starks, “we’re not just telling kids to be healthy, we're giving them the how-to.”

A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association found that students reported higher stress levels than adults and that “for teens and adults alike, stress has an impact on healthy behaviors like exercising, sleeping well, and eating healthy foods.” For many students, HealthCorps’ lessons on mental health were helpful when navigating the everyday stresses of school and prioritizing their overall well-being. “[HealthCorps] taught me the importance of mental health,” says sophomore Anaiah Sinclair, “If you’re not healthy emotionally, you won’t be motivated to get healthy physically.”

Students are taught easily accessible and healthy ways of dealing with stress like making an inexpensive stress ball out of a balloon and rice, which one student showed off at HealthCorps’ student exhibit at the high school's health fair in April. With their new-found knowledge of mental and physical health, some students bring the lessons they’ve learned out of the classroom and into conversations with their friends and family. “Sometimes I’ll tell my friends on the track team what we learned at HealthCorps, and when I go home I always tell my mom what I learned,” says junior Mya Whitted. 

Students and faculty alike say the culture at the school has transformed. Now that that the student body and administration at the high school have begun implementing healthier habits into their daily lives, it’s time for HealthCorps to leave the school. 

Typically, HealthCorps’ in-school program lasts for about four years until the organization's coordinator departs and enters a new school. “A huge part of our program is building sustainability, so that a wellness champion [like teachers] will be running the program on their own,” says Starks. Since health has become such an integral part of this high school’s culture, HealthCorps will now move on to another school in New York City where health is a low priority to build the program up again and create a healthier generation of young people and a healthier America.

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