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,
- 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 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.