Linking youth and congregations to PSE change for a greater outcome

Linking youth and congregations to PSE change for a greater outcome

Working with the faith-based community to increase access to healthy choices and opportunities is a strategy that Wholespire staff knows well. Churches and other faith-based settings provide opportunities to implement policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change that can have a positive impact on population health.

Over the past three years, Wholespire partnered with the 7th District African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and its Young People’s Division (YPD) to implement The HYPE Project. Through a competitive application process, all churches in the 7th District with an active YPD were invited to apply for a mini-grant to implement healthy eating and/or active living strategies. Funded by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), The HYPE YPD Project also required that participating YPDs implement injury prevention strategies.

Over the life of the SC DHEC funding, Wholespire and the 7th District AME Church supported 306 youth contacts from 22 AME churches in 11 counties. Youth in the Young People Division (YPDers) positively impacted the lives of their congregations by completing projects such as:

  • Community/Church Gardens,
  • Church Health Bulletins,
  • Safety Signage,
  • Handrails,
  • Community/Church Walking Clubs,
  • Walking Trails, and
  • Creating/improving Outdoor Recreation Spaces.

The YPDers also collectively passed over 60 healthy eating and active living policies at their churches. Policies focused on offering water, fruit, and vegetables when meals are served, including physical activity in services and meetings, and removing saltshakers from tables in church dining halls.

“This impressive accomplishment is an indication that church leadership, who must approve policies, are supportive of healthy change and that they are invested in the health of their congregants,” said Trimease K. Carter, manager of youth engagement at Wholespire. “Sixty policies across 11 churches is huge, and it was youth-led.”

Wholespire encourages HYPE teams to connect with local partners for additional resources and assistance that can leverage funding. Many YPD teams partnered with local organizations for technical support. Organizations such as the South Carolina Department of Education’s Farm to Table, SC DHEC, and SNAP-Ed provided helpful advice, tips, printed material, and strategies for implementing projects.

“Oftentimes, we are making decisions that affect our youth. It seems obvious to get youth leaders connected with our partners and let them help lead the direction of community health improvement efforts,” said Carter. “We feel like connecting youth with our chapters and partners is a win-win for everyone.”

YPD teams haven’t been without their challenges. COVID-19 posed great challenges for YPDers because of church closings, canceled group meetings, and other restrictions. They had to identify projects that could be safely implemented. Through their projects, youth were also able to support efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Most were able to provide personal protective equipment (e.g., masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and wipes) and share prevention tips with their congregations.

The Final Round

The Jeter AME Church HYPE Team in Carlisle, SC, plants a garden.

The final round of funding ended in September 2021 with eight YPD teams being selected. Five of these were returning teams and three were new teams. The returning YPDers focused on expanding, maintaining, and promoting their existing projects. For example, one church hosted a Reshape your Diet and Witness the Fitness event to promote policy, systems, and environmental changes that were established in the previous years of their project. 

The newly selected teams were able to identify, plan, and implement projects through this opportunity. According to one HYPE Project Advisor, “The financial support removed a large barrier in making the vision a reality.”

Wholespire was honored to work with historical Mother Emanual AME Church in Charleston, a newly selected team. Mother Emanual AME Church experienced tragedy in 2015 when a self-acclaimed white supremacist took the lives of nine members attending Bible study. The YPDers posted signs about general kitchen safety, passing healthy eating and active living policies, stress management, and body positivity. Their YPDers also hosted monthly group walks near the church.

The safety and injury prevention component during the final round of funding was addressed in many different forms. One team focused on practicing safety before, during, and after physical activity by warming up, cooling down, staying hydrated, and recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion. Other teams promoted safety through the use of safe recreational signage, kitchen safety signage, no firearms guns/weapons signage, and lighting in outdoor recreational spaces.  Additionally, one HYPE YPD Team worked on clearing a sidewalk for the community to use.  Residents expressed gratitude for clearing the sidewalk, with one stating that she can now “walk without fear of being hit by a car on the road.” 

As with other Wholespire mini-grant opportunities, YPDers were encouraged to leverage funds.  One church applied for a Healthy Eating, Active Living mini-grant from Wholespire and received $4,900.00 to expand their project. Their initial project included the creation of a walking trail. With these new funds, they will be able to repair and upgrade their basketball and baseball areas and add playground equipment. Wholespire plans on connecting this group to the SC DHEC Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, & Obesity Prevention for consultation on an open community use policy.

Youth Engagement Benefits

When we think of youth engagement, we think of youth engaging in advocacy campaigns or with community coalitions. The HYPE Project teaches youth to engage in healthy eating and active living projects. Church leaders have shared many benefits from participating in the HYPE YPD Project. They report that youth have become more engaged within the church and church activities. An adult advisor said, “Some of our youth were not very active within the church and this gave them the opportunity to step outside of their box.”

YPDers are also engaging with older adults within their congregation by getting them to help with activities like gardening, clearing fields, and packing mulch. One adult advisor said, “We had adults and senior citizens help out and it gave them something to do!”

This opportunity has also helped youth to be more conscious about physical activity and what they are eating and drinking. They are also sharing and stressing the importance of these things with their families, congregations, and communities. YPDers have hosted ribbon-cutting, field day, and kickoff events, as well as health fairs. One team’s project even led to their church starting a community faith walk. 

Working with the 7th District AME Church and YPDers to address healthy eating, active living, and safety across communities in South Carolina has been an impactful partnership. Not only have the youth and church leaders learned about PSE change and its effectiveness, but Wholespire staff learned about the structure of the AME church and the appropriate channels to make change happen.


Passing and Promoting an Open Community Use Agreement at USC Lancaster

Passing and Promoting an Open Community Use Agreement at USC Lancaster

In February 2019, the University of South Carolina Lancaster (USCL) applied for a Let’s Go! 3.0 mini-grant to increase access to its outdoor recreation amenities by adopting an open community use policy and to continue its active community environments work with Wholespire Lancaster County, formerly Eat Smart Move More Lancaster County.

The partners had completed several community health improvement projects that increased access to healthy opportunities. The mini-grant would help complete their vision while focusing on the Clinton community, a Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ) in the City of Lancaster. QOZs are characterized as economically distressed communities defined by the census tract.     

Existing projects that needed to be completed were:

  • Improvement of the built environment in the Clinton neighborhood by extending bike lanes and crosswalks and offering a loop to the Lindsay Pettus Greenway, which improved access to the USCL campus.
  • USCL public health students conducted an assessment on student on-campus walking behaviors. They used the data to develop walking routes for anyone to utilize while on campus.
  • USCL’s recreation facilities were open to the public (including trails, walking routes, tennis courts, picnic pavilion, 5K starting point, bike lanes, and crosswalks). However, the promotion of these facilities has been limited to word-of-mouth.
  • The Gregory YMCA began managing the operations of the University-owned recreation facility. USCL secured funding for the YMCA to provide sliding scale financial assistance to income-eligible YMCA members on a long-term, sustained basis. Approximately 400 Lancaster residents utilize this benefit from the YMCA, many of whom live in the nearby Clinton community.

Let’s Go 3.0 mini-grant funds were used to:

  1. Hire a professional designer to create a campus map of outdoor recreational facilities open to the public, which included the student-design walking routes.
  2. Purchase and install way-finding signs that promote the open use amenities and walking routes.
  3. Promote the open community use agreement policy to the community. Promotional strategies included issuing a press release to The Lancaster News, posting the press release on USCL’s website and social media, and announcing the existence and availability of these community resources at USCL’s student orientation and Clinton Elementary School’s Parent Night.
  4. Purchase bike racks for the Lindsay Pettus Greenway trailhead in the Clinton community and the USCL campus.

Initial Challenges

For USCL, the challenge wasn’t creating new opportunities for physical activities, it was promoting the ones they already had. The USCL campus has seven buildings, a YMCA in the physical education building, tennis courts, and about a mile and a half of natural path trails.

“We’re very community-oriented, and there’s a lot of word-of-mouth advertising. This is how a lot of small towns, small communities go. We just assume that people know things, but we’re only reaching our own social circles,” explained Lauren Vincent Thomas, professor of health promotion education and behavior at USCL.

The first step was passing an open community use agreement. “When we learned about the Let’s Go 3.0 mini-grant to promote and pass an open community use agreement, I felt like we kind of already had it, we just hadn’t set it as a policy,” said Thomas. “In reality, people use the trail and the tennis court IF they know that they can, but it wasn’t widely known information.”

During the initial conversation with university leadership, they said people already knew about the trails. Convincing them that the project had value was most of the battle with the project. According to Thomas, “Wholespire had this great manual that answered all of my questions. I felt very equipped and confident when the Education Foundation asked about liability.”

A Snowball Affect

Before this project moved to the next steps, debris that was dumped in front of trails was cleared. “It just sent a message that we didn’t care about the campus,” Thomas said while explaining how things like debris deterred people from using the trails. “After that, it was just about updating some features and showing what the campus had to offer. The website was updated, billboards with maps were placed in prime positions, and trail markers and entrances were added.”

Once the project was started, more opportunities were uncovered. “We found money to put split rail fencing up to show off the trail and leveraged funding from another grant to put bike racks in, and we worked with the South Carolina Wildlife Federation to certify that we had a wildlife habitat,” said Thomas. “It reminded us of what we had and gave us the opportunity to share with other people.”

Thomas’ favorite part of the project has been connecting with people who are readily willing to offer their own gifts, talents, and resources.

“We just needed to give them the opportunity and generously thank them for what they offer. For example, we partnered with, an organization in our community that builds ADA ramps for seniors and people who have disabilities, to build a new bridge on one of the trails. They were willing to do this project for us for free as long as they got the credit. There is so much creative generosity in our community. Now, our partners feel like the trails are just as much theirs as it is USC Lancaster’s and that’s exactly what we want.”

New Conversations

The students on campus have been enjoying the positive changes the project brought. The picnic shelter has seen new light now that people know it’s there and university organizations have been enjoying the cleared trails. An outdoor club put in geocaches and monitors them to add new prizes and F3, a male CrossFit group, uses the trails for Saturday morning runs.

The project has also affected conversations about the university’s 10-year Master Plan. “This mini-grant project has primed us to have that bigger conversation about walkability in our community,” said Thomas. “There is a four-lane highway between USC Lancaster’s campus and downtown Lancaster that could benefit from a crosswalk or pedestrian bridge!”

Thomas is hoping this project is the start of making the community more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Community Leader Spotlight: Irini McCarthy, Wholespire Lancaster County

Community Leader Spotlight: Irini McCarthy, Wholespire Lancaster County

For the past three years, Wholespire Lancaster County, formerly Eat Smart Move More Lancaster County, has been under the co-leadership of Irini McCarthy and Candra Riley. During this time, the Wholespire chapter has made some major policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) changes. Now, the chapter is looking for a new co-chair as Irini McCarthy’s public health career leads her to new opportunities in North Carolina.  

While working for the Upper Midlands Rural Health Network (UMRHN), McCarthy was responsible for expanding the UMRHN into Lancaster County and leading the Lancaster County Health and Wellness Commission. Through this work, she began attending Wholespire Lancaster County meetings and became a chapter member. When the chapter’s chair stepped down, McCarthy was approached by coalition members to take on the role of co-chair alongside Candra Riley.

“I loved Candra, and we’ve been working on stuff together. I knew this was going to be a great partnership. I decided that if Candra is doing it, I’ll do it along with her,” said McCarthy.

Irini was good at getting the emails out and I was good at taking minutes and coming up with the agenda,” said Candra Riley, co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County. “If I could have a co-chair like that for all my coalitions and committees…she made it so easy.”   

McCarthy felt it was awesome to work with the group in Lancaster that was so diverse. Chapter members had different perspectives, but common goals of wanting the community to thrive by focusing on equitable change, food security, access to care, and PSE changes.  

According to Riley, McCarthy had a huge impact on healthy eating and active living in Lancaster County, and she had a vision of some things that she wanted to do like bringing FoodShare to Lancaster County. She was very instrumental in the initial engagement of partners on the FoodShare Lancaster County project, which is still doing well today. She also helped by bringing in different local speakers and creating the newsletter for the chapter.

One of McCarthy’s most memorable moments with Wholespire Lancaster County was completing the walkability assessment in the Town of Heath Springs. She was impressed with all of the partners that attended including Lancaster County Council, Town Councils, and residents. Implementing the Faith, Activity, and Nutrition Program was also a high note for her, especially working with the churches, Town of Heath Springs Community Relations Volunteer Dr. Zora Denson, and Professor and Director of the University of South Carolina Prevention Research Center Dr. Sara Wilcox. She pointed out that these two projects are examples of systemic change and small steps to implementing a culture of health.

When asked if her work in Lancaster prepared her for her new role in North Carolina, she replied, “Oh yeah, oh my gosh!” While at UMRHN, she helped Lancaster become the first county in South Carolina to become 100% tobacco-free. According to McCarthy, her career experiences and community and chapter work is knowledge that she can take with her and apply in her new role as Tobacco Prevention Coordinator for Mecklenburg County.

“All of the work that we did in…those are all big PSE level changes and that’s what this new role for me is,” said McCarthy. “I always knew that I wanted to do PSE level work because it impacts the greatest amount of people. And it has to be equitable. For me, that’s exciting. I love that kind of work. That’s what we did in Lancaster, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

During her time as co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County, McCarthy also showed a great deal of leadership around health and racial equity. The outstanding notes she took during the 2020 Promoting Equity Among Communities Effectively (P.E.A.C.E.) training were shared with other coalitions and she modified a race equity assessment to be more applicable for coalitions. 

When asked how she became interested in equity she explained, “It started working in rural communities. We don’t have a lot of monetary funds but have an asset-based approach of using our different partners and using the resources we do have to try and make things equitable, and you can do a lot with a little.”

McCarthy is very passionate about racial equity and disparities. She said, “There are so many people who just don’t get it or who don’t understand it and as many times as you’re talking it’s almost like you’re hitting a wall, but you don’t give up. You keep talking. You keep educating. And you hope that you plant a seed, and you advocate for the right thing to happen That’s where my passion is – equitable PSE change. That’s kind of where I want to be.”

Community health improvement requires community leadership like that of McCarthy, her co-chair Riley, and the members and partners of Wholespire Lancaster County to truly make change happen. During her short time as co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County, Irini McCarthy has had a lasting positive impact on the people of Lancaster County, and she will be truly missed by those not just in Lancaster County but in other counties too.


Spartanburg community pitches in on GoForth Recovery’s Mini-Grant Project

Spartanburg community pitches in on GoForth Recovery’s Mini-Grant Project

In Spring 2021, GoForth Recovery in Spartanburg found out about the Let’sGo! South Carolina 3.0 mini-grant opportunity offered by Wholespire, formerly Eat Smart Move More South Carolina. They needed an outdoor fitness area to provide residents, family members, and those in the Spartanburg community with a dedicated multi-use area to enhance the recovery journey and stimulate active living.

Changing unhealthy habits isn’t easy for anyone, especially those who suffer from addiction. And oftentimes, individuals who enter a recovery program like GoForth Recovery cannot afford a gym membership or even leave the premises for physical activity. Having a resource like an onsite basketball court allows residents a way to handle their stress and anxiety, while also providing a place for social interaction with their family, friends, and even the community. So, they applied for a mini-grant and received it!

Balancing Life and Making it Healthy

A basketball court may seem like a small thing, but for the residents at GoForth Recovery, it’s huge. It means a way to be physically active, a place to relieve stress and anxiety, and an activity to do during visits with family and friends. 

For the average person, balancing everything life throws at you can be overwhelming, and we often turn to stress eating or some other form of unhealthy coping. For people struggling with addictions, everyday life is even more difficult to handle because they have to relearn how to balance life. GoForth Recovery teaches its residents how to lead a well-balanced and healthy life because when a person in recovery doesn’t adopt healthy habits, they are more likely to relapse. To help prevent relapse, GoForth Recovery provides classes on everything from money management and how to shop with a list to healthy eating and active living. 

“Most guys who come in…no one has ever shown them how to have a good, balanced, healthy life. What does healthy look like,” explained Brian Naylor, executive director at GoForth Recovery. “We talk about seven hours of sleep, eating six times a day, what does healthy mean. If I’m getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising, then I’m more likely to stay in recovery. Nutrition and physical activity is key.” 

Naylor explained that their house is a healthy house. He’s witnessed guys turn their lives around and go full force into taking care of their bodies. “It’s amazing to see the success of these guys. When I say guys are drinking shakes at night, I’m watching them use kale, strawberries, bananas, and protein powder; and six months ago, they were shooting meth. That’s healthy. That’s recovery.”

The Power of Community

Before the project began.

Initially, the plan called for clearing enough land for the basketball court, but the vision soon grew to clear an entire lot to make room for future additions, like a pavilion and a playground for residents’ children and visitors. 

With any healthy eating and active living project, leveraging funds play an important role in the magnitude and success of the end product. GoForth Recovery had an ambitious job to complete with only $3,500 from Wholespire, which, according to Naylor, only covered about half of the actual costs of the basketball court. 

“We were able to get it done for next to nothing, except for gas. We had people donate equipment. We had guys who could operate it. We’re hauling off stuff to the dump. We had the City that donated their time, and they came and filled five or six truckloads of trees and debris.” 

Word got out to various community members, businesses, partners, and associates about the basketball court project and the need for help with one slightly large unbudgeted item — dirt, 20 tons of dirt. 

“After we graded the land, it required dirt because the land is low. The court system in Spartanburg was demolishing their old courthouse to build a garage. Word got out that we needed dirt. We also had a resident who was working for a local home builder. So for one week, there were close to 30 truckloads…and I’m talking about thousands and thousands of dollars of donations that were coming in. So just the dump trucks and the liability and the dirt, we were able to raise the land .”

Because of GoForth Recovery’s connections and the connections of their residents, they were able to leverage more than $10,000 in in-kind donations and complete their project. As Coretta Scott King once said, “ The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”  

Sharing is Caring

Since the completion of the basketball court, Naylor has witnessed increased activity among its residents. Duke Energy installed a light, so the guys take advantage of nighttime hoops. 

“We have other people from the recovery community show up to play basketball because there isn’t any other place to go, plus it’s a safe place,” said Naylor. “We have meetings on-site that are open to the public, so after a meeting, people will go outside to congregate and shoot baskets.” 

GoForth Recover also shares their new court with a local boys’ home, located one street behind the residence.  “They’re over there playing every day on our court. It’s been a good bridge between us and them because we’ve been able to invite them to things like devotion, breakfasts, and some of our group outings — all because of this basketball court.”

In the end, GoForth Recovery got their community basketball court and already prepared space for future additions. But, it didn’t happen without challenges. From tree stump removal, scheduling with partners, debris removal, grading, and weather, their residents rallied behind them and used their connections, skills, and experiences to see the project through to the end.  

“The challenges we encountered resulted in an incredible groundswell of resident unity, partner engagement, community involvement, and generous companies that helped us build a community basketball court, which far exceeded our vision in quality when we applied for our initial grant funding from Wholespire,” said Naylor.

GoForth Recovery, a non-profit organization established in 2018, is a men’s addiction recovery program and residential transitional living home for alcoholics and drug addicts. Their six-month residential program provides housing and a structured environment that allows alcoholics and addicts to recover from a hopeless and helpless state of mind and body. Their primary goal is to enable the resident to take responsibility for their recovery and build the foundation for them to be a productive member of their community.

Long-time school health advocate ends 40-year career

Long-time school health advocate ends 40-year career

For more than 40 years, Beth Barry has played a role in the shaping of South Carolina school districts’ health and wellness initiatives, as well as in the growth of Wholespire, formerly Eat Smart Move More South Carolina, and many other state and community coalitions. Barry recently retired from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. 

As she laughs, Barry says, “My children say they’ll believe it when they see it!” That’s because this retirement marks her second in her long career, and they probably know just how passionate she is about healthy students, health schools, and healthy families.  

A native of Columbia, Barry received her bachelor’s degree in health promotion, education, and behavior and her master’s in public health from the University of South Carolina. In fact, she obtained her master’s plus 30, meaning she was eligible for a South Carolina teaching certificate. That’s pretty impressive considering Barry was never really interested in teaching. 

In between degrees, she spent eight years at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control before moving on to Richland School District One for the next 20 years coordinating the South Carolina Department of Education’s first Healthy Schools Grant from the CDC. She retired from Richland One and landed at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. 

That’s where many of us know Barry. Her work took her to school districts across the state as she provided onsite support and training to districts participating in the Alliance’s Healthy Schools and Communities Program. She also helped schools understand and implement evidence-based practices that support healthy eating and active living.

“I realized early on in my career that working in schools is similar to that famous bank robber who replied to a reporter’s inquiry as to why he robbed banks by saying ‘because that’s where the money is’,” says Barry. “Schools are where the young people are. So if we’re focused on prevention, I realized that’s where we needed to be.” 

Barry went on to explain that school health initiatives have the potential to impact the most people because they are often one of the largest employers, especially in rural South Carolina. The idea is that when students and staff are exposed to healthy opportunities and choices, then those healthy behaviors at school can impact their families’ health and wellness.

“If we can also impact staff wellness, and perhaps indirectly the wellbeing of the staff’s family, then a focus on wellness in our school communities can really have a significant, positive effect on population health,” explains Barry, “as well as helping schools increase attendance and reach other goals.” 

Many public health professionals have had the honor of working with Barry in some capacity, whether it be through Wholespire, state coalitions, grant initiatives, or other collaborative work. 

“I met Beth in 2013, soon after starting my position as the School Wellness Consultant at DHEC. She immediately became my mentor starting with road trips to school meetings across the state,” says Erica Ayers. “Beth taught me everything I know about school health, helping me grow from a young novice to the established professional I am today. In return, I taught her how to use the GPS in her phone instead of printed MapQuest directions. Although Beth has retired, her passion lives on in everyone she has worked with over the years.”

She served several years as Wholespire’s second chairman of the Board of Directors. Her role was pivotal as she led staff during a transition between executive directors.

“I have been so impressed with Wholespire over the years. I think the whole evolution that was in health promotion and other aspects of public health, which Wholespire embraced, was to focus on policy, systems, and environmental change,” says Barry. “When I first started my career, the focus was very much on individual behavior change, and there wasn’t much consideration of whether or not individuals had any much less easy access to healthy choices. I think that focus has been transformative and made us so much better in public health and school health. There’s still a lot to be done, but it’s like everything just fell in place. We started looking at things more holistically.”

Over the years, Barry has collaborated with many people on the public health and school health scene. For coalitions that want to work with schools, she says to start with the school district wellness coordinator. Show them you’re there to help and not to hinder their progress. Nurture the relationship and then reveal what you need from them. She advises using this approach because schools are overwhelmed with work and they often get bad press, which makes administrators hesitant to work with outsiders. 

Asked how she plans to spend her retirement, her first response was keeping her grandchildren and spending more time with her children. Her second response: “I have signed on with a very, very part-time position with a non-profit.” Barry continues to practice yoga, participate in fitness classes at Drew Wellness Center, and volunteer at her church. 

“My career in public and school health has provided a wonderful opportunity that I so appreciate to meet and work with talented, committed partners throughout the state,” says Barry. “I was very fortunate to work statewide for so many years and develop life-long friendships that I appreciate so much. And I’m thrilled that we have such talented, passionate, young professionals in health promotion, public health, and school health who are committed to this work.”