Pickens County leader looks back on HYPE experience 10 years later

Founder & President, Columbus and Edith Rogers Mansell Foundation

When The Healthy Young People Empowerment (HYPE) Project® began ten years ago, Wholespire knew teens’ potential impact on their communities. What we didn’t completely realize were the impacts The HYPE Project would have on the adult advisors. 

Cathy Breazeale, former director of prevention services at Behavioral Health Services of Pickens County (BHSPC), was one of the first HYPE adult advisors to pilot the new youth engagement program in 2012. We caught up with Cathy for the 10th anniversary to learn about her experiences with The HYPE Project. 

What motivated you to become involved in The HYPE Project as an adult advisor?
In looking at the program it spoke to me about helping youth understand that the way you perceive food and exercise at an early age can help you in the long run. I’ve never seen a program like this and I was really excited to be a part of it.

When you were the lead adult advisor, what was your position?
I was a Director of Prevention Services and I had staff – Tiffany and Ben. I was responsible for looking at the budget and the action plan. When we said that we were going to do something, I made sure that we did it. All of us made sure the youth engaged like they were supposed to. To be honest, when we first started, it didn’t happen that way because it was new to us. We weren’t sure how to make The HYPE Project work on top of our other projects. When you’re meeting for two hours, you don’t have a lot of time to plan community events and work on these types of projects. We had tobacco projects, and alcohol projects and so I was kind of like the person that steered to ensure that we did do what it is we said we were going to do.

Your HYPE Team was composed of the BHSPC Youth Board. What is the youth board?
The youth board is a group of youth that are advocates for behavioral health issues related to alcohol,  tobacco, and other drug issues. It’s about community. What it is environmentally that they see in their community that they think needs to be changed? They get other youth engaged in their community and on the youth board. They’re also a spokesperson for issues that they were working on. But, they first have to buy into what that is.

After completing their PhotoVoice project, the Pickens County HYPE Team chose to focus on improvements at Haygood Park. They assessed the park and found some concerns:

Pickens County HYPE Team members assessing Haygood Park in Easley, SC, as Cathy Breazeale observes and advises.
  • No signs posting map and event/rental information
  • No bike racks
  • No water to drink
  • Restrooms need improvements
  • Dangerous big hole
  • Poor maintenance and landscaping
  • Litter and graffiti 
  • Playground 
    • No benches
    • No shade
    • No lights

The HYPE team presented their concerns to the Parks and Recreation Department, and they were successful in getting making the park more appealing with landscaping. However, since the completion of their civic action project, Pickens County has made improvements to Haygood Park and it’s being used more by residents and visitors. There’s even a dog park!

Do you remember any of the reactions from the youth about participating in HYPE?
Well, negatively they didn’t want to do it. They wondered why we were looking at what they were eating. But, I can still remember the presentation comparing the weight of fat to the weight of muscle. It brought about a conversation. Sometimes, we downplay health because we think small people are healthy and larger people are not healthy. That’s what our brain tells us and so even talking about those particular things — the weight of fat and muscle — brought about a conversation and impacted the youth. Also, I would say 80% of the HYPE team played some type of sport, and so once again, they are thinking ‘I play sports, I’m healthy.’ Uh, but so it did. It brought about a lot of different conversations about those things, but in the end, I believe that The HYPE Project changed behaviors. 

Youth used the Community Park Audit Tool developed by Kansas State University and the University of Missouri.

How has your experience influenced the way you work with the youth now?
When we hosted a lot of events, we used to always get sodas. But, I always tried to make sure that we had water there. We would tell our event participants that they can drink sodas, but they need to drink X amount of water per day. And so [The HYPE Project] helped. It helped me, personally. I also use [healthy choices] even now at our local church where we work with youth. I just try to give them the things that I know they want, but also put in some of those healthy choices too.

Is there any advice that you would give new adult advisors?
Uh, yes. I would advise them to build a plan of action with participation from the youth at the beginning, instead of waiting. I do that even now when I look at grants and proposals to send. Don’t just look at the money. You know you’re on this timeline and it’s happening, and now I gotta do something. When we take that approach, sometimes doing something is something we didn’t put a lot of thought into.

I would also say from the beginning, act like the funding ends in a week. Come up with ideas, several ideas, and then use those ideas to streamline the project within those months that you have to do it. This lets you say, ‘We’re going to do this, or we’re going to do that. We’re gonna add this and I believe that it would be better.’ The project would be better.

If you had another opportunity to lead a HYPE team would you volunteer again?
I would, because of the previous statement that I made of the things I’ve learned and even in working with [the Columbus and Edith Rogers Mansell Foundation] and knowing that. Our target group isn’t just teens, but it’s parents with youth ages 5 to 17. So now I know that. That’s our target population. 

The HYPE Team assessed all features of Haygood Park, including the volleyball court.

The parents at the beginning will be involved because I’ll get it. It’ll be a balance, even though the youth will be the ones that will do the project. We will let them do the planning of it and then the parents would come in and we have a meeting of the minds so that they can talk about as young people what it is they see in their community and what they feel needs to be changed. 

So being a part of something like that, it’s kind of like being able to take the test again. This time I’m going to study. And not just okay, I know it’s a test. I just need to make a 75. I wanna make 100 this time.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?
HYPE is a, uh, it’s a unique program because you don’t hear about healthy living a lot concerning youth. I know we talk about obesity this and that in our states, but HYPE should really be nationally known. I feel it should be.

We couldn’t agree more with Cathy! Several of the Pickens County HYPE Team moved on to college and are starting businesses and careers in healthcare. Many are still involved in their community. And Haygood Park is thriving with recreational sports, squealing children, and happy dogs.