Youth leaders design and plan Youth Summit on Healthy Behaviors
Over 500 students, teachers attend sixth-annual event
A record number of Central Louisiana middle and high school students traveled to Alexandria in October to participate in a one-day summit to learn how to become advocates for healthy choices and policy changes in their schools and communities.
But long before The Rapides Foundation’s annual Youth Summit on Healthy Behaviors ever happened, a core group of student leaders spent months planning and organizing the event. These students are members of the Foundation’s Youth Advisory Council, a group of young leaders chosen to serve as youth advocates for healthy behaviors.
Youth Advisory Council members spend months preparing for the annual summit.
The summit is a one-day event designed by youth, for youth, hosted annually by The Rapides Foundation. This is the sixth summit hosted by the Foundation, and by far the largest. Just over 500 students and teachers from 51 Central Louisiana middle/junior and high schools from seven school districts attended the 2016 event, which carried the theme #MoveMore #EatWell #LiveClean and focused on the areas of nutrition, tobacco prevention, physical activity, and substance and alcohol abuse prevention. Click here to see the 2016 Youth Summit Photo Gallery.
Summit attendance is part of grant funding to Central Louisiana’s school districts who participate in The Rapides Foundation’s Healthy Behaviors School District Partnership Grant. “The Foundation hopes to positively impact as many Central Louisiana students, educators and staff as possible by providing strategies to raise awareness about the importance of tobacco control, substance and alcohol abuse prevention, increased physical activity and proper nutrition,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation. The grant opportunity aligns with the Foundation’s Healthy Behaviors Initiative, which addresses these important health behaviors.
The purpose is to encourage young people to adopt healthy behaviors in their lives and to teach them how to advocate for change in their communities. “It’s an opportunity for participants to learn some leadership skills and learn what advocacy is. Then we give them a chance to put their new knowledge and skills to work. After attending each breakout session, we bring them back together by districts for a planning session to brainstorm and plan ways to go back to their schools and work for change,” said Trayce Snow, Program Officer for the Foundation.
The goal is to train young people to be advocates for healthy behaviors in their communities.
One of the reasons the summit has been so successful is because it is planned by youth, not adults. The idea is that young people respond more positively to their peers, and Central Louisiana youths have responded overwhelmingly.
Catahoula Parish School District Federal Programs Director Linda Edwards has been taking students to the summit each of the six years. Edwards serves as the Catahoula Parish District Coordinator for The Rapides Foundation’s School District Partnership Grant. “The kids enjoy it because the Foundation takes into account what high school students need and what they want. It’s not planned through the eyes of an adult,” she said. “Every year they ask the kids to do an evaluation, and I know they take into account what these students say about it. That feedback and input makes a difference. It’s obvious that they look at what the kids want and need.”
Council members practice their parts in preparation for the summit.
The planning and design is the culmination of months of hard work by members of the Youth Advisory Council, a group of 16 young, motivated student leaders. They apply for the council at the beginning of the calendar year and, if selected, begin their work in February.
Council meetings are held monthly in the Foundation Building, where members learn leadership and teambuilding skills, and then start planning the next summit. “We ask them what changes they would like to see, what they would like to stay the same and what kinds of speakers they would look for in terms of those different topic areas,” Snow said.
During the summer months, council members gather for optional meetings to work on an advocacy project summit participants can take back to their own schools. The 2016 advocacy project was “Brain Breaks,” an evidence-based program that encourages schools to provide short physical activities students can do during class time, right at their desks. These quick physical breaks have been shown to re-energize students who are losing focus; allow easily distracted students a structured chance to move around; and increase blood flow to the brain, which enhances mood and openness to new concepts.
Youth Advisory Council member Savanna Smith, a 14-year-old freshman from Grant High School, had successfully advocated for Brain Breaks at her junior high school, so she introduced the idea to her fellow council members. The council worked on the advocacy project as a team, conducting research and creating a PowerPoint presentation that not only would be presented during the summit, but which was placed on a personal flash drive for each participant to take back to their schools. “The whole presentation was a collective effort of the council,” Smith said.
Savanna Smith: I definitely have grown as a person from being on the council.
In the fall, the Youth Advisory Council began meeting more frequently to plan all of the details for the event to make sure it runs smoothly. “There was just a lot of work, like deciding what we were going to give away, the speakers we wanted, the Brain Breaks we wanted, our roles, how things were going to function, how we did the breakout sessions, even the food we were going to eat,” said Smith, who also served as an MC at the event. “There were little things and huge things that we had to get together and prepare for.”
Stanley Celestine Jr., a 17-year-old senior at the Louisiana School for the Agricultural Sciences who served as co-MC for the event, said the council also had to decide what the event T-shirt was going to look like, who the speakers would be and, as the day approached, to check signage, prepare packets and make sure rooms were set up for the presenters.
Stanley Celestine Jr.: It sparks an interest for the participants because they learn they can do these things in their communities.
For the three breakout sessions, the council carefully selected regionally and nationally recognized presenters and panelists in the areas of nutrition, tobacco prevention, physical activity, and substance and alcohol abuse prevention.
Snow and two technical assistants hired by the Foundation to work with the youth guided the council throughout the process. But Celestine and Smith both pointed out that the adults let the kids run the show. “They were the ones who really led us. They were the ones who taught us. They offered us guidance and made sure we were on track,” Smith said. “Even though we were the ones to run it, they gave us structure and made it possible. I feel like they gave us a mold and we filled that.”
After the summit, participants return to their schools, armed with leadership and advocacy skills, and a new appreciation and understanding of the importance of healthy behaviors. “The overall goal is to train young people to be advocates for those healthy behaviors and then go back into their community and lead an effort,” said Celestine, a Nickelodeon HALO (Helping And Leading Others) award winner for his work in establishing a nonprofit that helps young people. “So attending an event like this, you are receiving education and training from a diverse range of people in the field, from not just adults but by other young people. And one thing I enjoy about the summit is, it’s for youth by youth. So it sparks an interest for the participants because they learn they can do these things in their communities.”
Edwards said Catahoula students are energized when they return. Block High School students, for example, collected information about the dangerous health consequences of tobacco use and set up an informational booth at the school’s parent-teacher conference night.
“I have seen the concerns here in Catahoula Parish with these students, especially over spit tobacco,” she said. “In the years they have attended the summit, they know it’s harmful. They know the facts about tobacco. If The Rapides Foundation hadn’t given them this opportunity, spit tobacco would still be prevalent in our parish.”
Youth Advisory Council members said they believe their peers are making healthy choices, such as selecting healthier options in canteens, exercising more and avoiding tobacco, alcohol and illegal substances. Members also said they enjoyed the experience that serving on the council provides.
“There’s the obvious, like learning about healthy living, but I also managed to gain other skills from the council,” Smith said. “It helped me develop skills in teamwork, leadership and public speaking from being the MC, and other things like organization, planning, dealing with deadlines and commitments. I definitely have grown as a person from being on the council.”