When Jason Smith first arrived at Hiram Johnson High School to help turn the struggling school around, he expected to find a community overrun by gangs and violence. “That’s not what I found,” he said. “I found kids with lots of potential, who wanted to do something in their community and make it a better place.”
Smith, who is currently the Director of Health and Wellness for the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center, quickly identified the school’s health and physical activity environment as a key area for improvement. “Many of the sports teams were having trouble finding recruits, and the cafeteria wasn’t serving healthy foods,” he said. “The kids were not leading healthy lifestyles.”
To help turn this trend around, Smith spearheaded the creation of the Health Ambassador Program at Hiram Johnson and Luther Burbank High Schools. The Health Ambassador Program is an out-of-school time collaboration between the Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center and the Sacramento City Unified School District. The program trains high school students to become champions for change in their communities by mentoring elementary and middle school students through nutrition and health education workshops.
The Health Ambassadors Program provides critical academic support, community service experiences and work force development for disadvantaged Sacramento area high school students. “The Health Ambassadors get the opportunity to work in an organization that is deeply involved in the local community, and they gain experience that colleges are looking for,” said Smith.
The first three months of Health Ambassadors’ training consist of educational activities, guest speakers, and a field trip. The next month is focused on guiding the students to create an outreach plan for younger youth who attend elementary and middle schools that feed into Hiram Johnson and Luther Burbank High Schools. Smith explained that the Ambassadors’ training program and outreach plans are influenced by and consistent with the Healthy Eating and Physical Eating (HEPA) standards.
Program staff help the Health Ambassadors create an action plan for educating primary school students and their families. This entails creating a timeline and budget for educational demonstrations, healthy food samples and youth activities. Staff then coordinate trips to nearby elementary and middle schools for the Health Ambassadors to begin their outreach.
The program, which is now entering its fifth year of operation, served 620 students last year. The communities reached include Lemon Hill, Oak Park, Tahoe Park, Florin and Meadowview, California.
Not only do the Health Ambassadors work to improve the health habits of their younger peers, they become experts in nutrition and physical fitness themselves. They tackle a wide range of health topics, including encouraging less soda drinking and more water consumption and teaching kids about creative ways to get active, like martial arts.
Smith said, “The youth have been very engaged in their work with the elementary and middle schools, and they’ve truly grasped the types of skills needed to advocate for a healthier lifestyle.”