Columbia youth lead healthy changes at Pine Grove AME Church

A youth group at Pine Grove AME Church are trying to do something about the health of their community by implementing health policies and educating the congregation on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Through a partnership between Eat Smart Move More South Carolina and the 7th District AME Church, nine teens and pre-teens involved in Pine Grove’s Young People Division (YPD) had a chance to participate in The HYPE Project and learn about policy, system, and environmental change and the positive impact they can have on their community.

“I just let them take charge,” says Miranda Blocker, Pine Grove AME Church YPD Director and HYPE Team Adult Advisor. “They created the plan and did all of the work. They really did.”

Two senior members of the HYPE team – Alex Blocker (17) and Sabrina Bowman (18) – took the lead on creating an action plan by researching and developing key focus areas. Healthy eating and active living policies within the church and a church garden were agreed upon by the HYPE team.

“We modeled it after some other plans that we saw and made it off of the needs that we could do,” said Alex. “We tried to be realistic, but also optimistic in how we could do it.”

Once the HYPE team completed the action plan, it was a matter of getting it up the chain of command, so to speak. Ultimately, the elders and the pastor approved the plan and cleared the path to healthy change.

“I’ve been around here for a long time. I do a lot with the children. If the children present something, the church is going to support them 100 percent,” said Miranda.

Healthy Eating and Active Living Policies

The Pine Grove HYPE Team wanted to ensure meals and snacks being served at all church-hosted events would be healthy choices, and only water would be served in the fellowship hall. The group also wanted a 5-minute physical activity break incorporated into Bible Study, Sunday School, church meetings, and the afterschool program. The youth successfully advocated for all these healthy policy changes.

According to the HYPE team, there wasn’t a lot of pushback. “We had people ask for sweet tea, but we stood by our water policy,” said Eric Gamble, Jr. (17).

“The policy itself was easy. Some of it was simple. Like during a meeting, stop right there and do 5 minutes of cardio. That’s easy for them to do,” said Alex. “But, when it comes to just serving water at an event, now you’re interfering with someone’s committee. But it all worked out. Everything in the policy got approved, and I don’t think we had to actually change anything. So, they were pretty open to it.”

All the policies also apply to the afterschool program. Kids are encouraged to go outside and play. The church provides access to jump ropes, balls, and green spaces.

“We look forward to going outside, being ourselves, and going outside to play with each other,” said Elise Gamble (11).

Church Garden

It’s a small church garden, but it’s the start of something big and it’s full of purpose. With the help of a congregation member with experience in gardening, the HYPE team created a garden out of plastic barrels cut to the size of planters, which saved a lot of time with removing grass and cultivating the soil.

“We saw it was something the church could do and that we could rent to other places. It just made sense to be sustainable and grow healthy food. That way you’re not only learning new things but you’re also eating it,” said Alex.

“When we started this, the kids were green. That’s something people don’t do anymore. They don’t have gardens,” said Miranda. “What would’ve taken us 15 minutes to plant seeds, it took us two hours. Our instructor who was teaching us was very meticulous. What was most exciting was when people would come to church and see it grow.”

The garden is in a green space near the entrance to the church, so as congregants arrived, it piqued their interest. According to Miranda, they were very curious about the garden and asked, ‘What are you going to give to us,’ ‘When can we eat some,’ ‘Who is this for,’ or ‘I’m going to pick those greens.’

Again, Miranda let the youth do all the work and take care of the garden. The church hosts an afterschool program, so the kids were responsible for watering the garden twice a week. They even created some creative signs for the plants, like Bushy Broccoli and Cool Collards.

“The kids enjoy it. The kids are always ready to mess in the garden and go outside and play. The grown-ups, they enjoy it too. They like that their kids are liking to go outside, are moving more, and not staying inside playing games and being in front of a screen,” said Eric.

The Future

The Pine Grove HYPE Team plans to continue their garden with the next planting in Spring 2020. They’ll plant a variety of vegetables – tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, etc. They eventually want to increase the amount of food they produce and give it to the senior members of their church and ultimately, to the community.

As far as physical activity goes, they’re planning on building a basketball court that can be used for other youth activities like dodgeball or kickball. They’re also planning on creating a walking path in the adjacent parking lot.

“I think all of the outside field activities can be for the community. If they come consistently, the parents might see there’s a church and could be interested in attending,” said Alex.

The HYPE Project has taught youth the importance of being involved in their community and helping others. It’s also taught them some personal lessons. When they first heard about The HYPE Project, they weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into. They said they never intentionally thought about eating healthy, but now they do.

When asked what they think about The HYPE Project after creating an action plan, working with leadership, and implementing the changes, they all agreed that it has been a positive experience.

“It’s great. I’m not just saying it because they gave us money. That’s also good. But everything we’ve talked about as far as helping the kids, helping the adults. It’s definitely something that more communities need. I think we all love it. The kids love it,” said Eric.

Elise said, “I wouldn’t want to change it because everyone’s working together to make it happen.”

“I think it’s a big impact. When we first thought about it, we really didn’t know what it was,” said Amari Rogers (16). “It really helped us grow. It helped me focus more on what I eat and making healthy choices.”

Alex said, “I had to talk to people to get the HYPE Project passed and working to create a policy. It might not be the same in terms of politics, but the process of creating it was still the same. That definitely helped me in other areas, and then again, just the people skills, the social skills in working with Eric on creating the video and talking to everyone else. So, everything kind of went hand in hand preparing me for other things.”