Leah's Project EDU: Step 1 to Kids Health & Wellness
Organized by: Leah Halley
Leah's Project EDU: Step 1 to Kids Health & Wellness When I was a child, I believed that all kids had qualified and encouraging teachers, three meals a day based on the food pyramid, and, like me, went to their pediatrician regularly to get check-ups and their dentist to keep cavities away. As I grew older, I began to recognize that most of my friends had differences in their upbringing, but I never fully realized the drastic disparities that existed in healthcare and education until I was faced with it as teacher. My desire to drive healthcare reform was first sparked by my experience as a 2009 Teach for America Corps Member, in which I served as a high school geometry teacher in Mississippi. The majority of my students were more than a year behind academically, and with approximately 98% of the student body on welfare, I quickly became aware of the drastic impact poor health and health education had on student accomplishments. Many of my students struggled with insufficient nourishment, inadequate healthcare, and unwanted pregnancies, which significantly impeded their education. For instance, though the majority of my students received free or reduced breakfast and lunch, the school cafeteria program did little to provide the adequate nourishment necessary for growing teenagers. The bulk of their meals consisted of processed foods, high in fat, simple carbohydrates, and sugar. While on breakfast duty, I distinctly remember watching students peel off slices of partially-melted, processed cheese from the tops of donuts and cinnamon rolls; the cheese, apparently, fulfilled the protein portion of the meal. Additionally, students would complain of toothaches; all I could do was send them to the nurse, who applied Orajel and sent them back to class. These students did not have the resources to go to the dentist, or if resources were available, did not see it as a necessity. And though I was not, and still am not, a licensed psychologist, I fervently believe that approximately ten percent of the juniors and seniors in my classroom had undiagnosed learning disabilities. The primary hindrances to graduation, according to the American Public Health Association, include teen pregnancy, hunger, and unmet health needs, all of which I witnessed in my classroom. Though there is no simple fix for the many challenges faced by poverty, these obstacles to learning could be overcome through access to health education, preventative medicine, and mental health support. Ultimately, my overarching goal is to eliminate those health-related obstacles that impede our youth’s education and the development of our surrounding community. To that end, this past year I began my studies for a Master’s of Public Health to further develop my skills and knowledge to resolve disparities in healthcare and education at the University Of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. While taking classes fulltime, I have also had the opportunity to work toward positive social change by working fulltime in my field with Doctors For Change – a local healthcare education and advocacy nonprofit that works to raise awareness of different health-related issues and inequities in Houston. I love my work, and they are extremely supportive of me pursuing my degree! But because it is a small nonprofit, my compensation is not enough to fully support my living and educational expenses for another year; however, I can’t imagine finding another position that would allow me to make such a positive impact while still pursuing my educational goals. Which brings me to my need! To complete my degree (with an eta graduation of Summer 2017!), I need around $6,000 of additional support! It is the first step on the journey to achieve my goal of working to eliminate both the physical and mental health-related obstacles that are keeping adolescents from reaching their full potential. Though some may call me an idealist or optimist, I truly believe I can and must make a difference! In the words of Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Whether an MPH will lead to overseeing a community health program working to address these barriers, or working to effect policy change that will support our children, I will continue to give all of myself toward making that change a reality. I just need your help!