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Collaborating to empower healthy habits

In Georgia and across America, there is a critical need to improve the health of our children. Obesity rates in children and adolescents have nearly tripled in the past 30 years, which could make this generation the first in U.S. history to live shorter lives than their parents. Stopping this alarming trend is possible, said Christi Kay, President for HealthMPowers, but it will take communities working together to create a culture supporting health.

Early on, the team at HealthMPowers recognized that, in order to inspire healthy habits among children—lasting, positive behavioral change around exercise and nutrition—they would need to help transform the environments where children live, learn, and play. This meant bringing together leaders in children's health, seeking out strategic alliances, and integrating nutrition education and physical activity into schools, childcare centers, and after-school programs. This holistic approach, said Kay, “has allowed us to consistently layer our programming and messaging into the daily settings of those we serve.” When successful, these partnerships don’t just support lifelong healthy lifestyle choices for children, but their families and communities as well.

Now, 17 years since its founding, HealthMPowers works with more than 25 local, state, and national partners, securing multi-year commitments to maximize the long-term impact of their customized programs, resources, and services. As they have expanded their programming through these strategic alliances, said Kay, HealthMPowers has fine-tuned their methodology for making each partnership a success.

A healthy partnership process

When considering a partnership, HealthMPowers begins by listening carefully to the direct beneficiaries and frontline providers. ”Oftentimes, the best ideas come from teachers, administrators, and children,” said Kay. More often than not, the insights generated from this simple exercise help the HealthMPowers team identify breakthrough methods for delivering programs. To move forward with any idea, the HealthMPowers team makes sure it can be seamlessly integrated into the current environment of their service population; based on experience, they know that programs are most likely to succeed when they fit in and enhance what their partners are already doing, rather than forcing them to do anything extra. “This is our way of adding value without burden,” said Kay.

Once they have validated an idea and determined everyone involved has the capacity to implement it, they garner support from those at the partner’s top level, be it a state, school district, or organization. “If we can show prospective partners that we have the skills and capacity to achieve health goals system-wide, we can usually get backing from the top, and, ultimately, we see results,” said Kay. Part of this process is educating those officials on the health challenges facing Georgia’s children, and the need for various entities working together.

If HealthMPowers receives backing from the top, they then design a pilot program that can be rolled out over multiple years and deployed through key partners. “Implementing the work over time, in stages, is important because it keeps the service population from feeling overwhelmed,” said Kay. Additionally, it enables them to try new ideas, learn from any mistakes, and expand thoughtfully. The results can then provide guidance for other partnerships, or a model that can replicated throughout the sector.

Statewide collaborative solutions in action

One shining example of HealthMPowers’ partnership process is the Power Up for 30 program, part of Governor Nathan Deal’s statewide, multi-agency initiative Georgia Shape, bringing together governmental, philanthropic, academic, and business communities to reduce childhood obesity. Power Up for 30 helps address Governor Deal’s goal to improve child health by increasing physical activity throughout the school day in elementary schools across the state. Using the Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program model promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, school staff learn how to integrate an additional 30 minutes or more of physical activity before, during, and after school. HealthMPowers, in partnership with the Departments of Public Health and Education, has served as the dedicated training partner for this initiative, training over 800 elementary schools since 2013.

Staying true to their partnership process, Power Up for 30 began as a year-long pilot, Health EmPowers You!, which provided 39 Georgia schools with training and strategy implementation for increasing student physical activity. The outcomes of the pilot, such as increases in classroom physical activity time, the addition of before-school exercise programs, and improved aerobic capacity among students, helped guide the development of training protocols and resources for Power Up for 30.

In the past four years, HealthMPowers in partnership with Georgia Shape has continued to expand the reach of Power Up for 30, including the addition of training for after-school providers. Pilot efforts are also underway for a middle-school version of Power Up for 30. In the future, the program may expand to additional settings like high schools, private schools, community groups, and childcare centers. Equally exciting, said Kay, is that steps have been taken to ensure Power Up for 30 continues in elementary schools for years to come. These sustainability efforts include online training options, certificate programs available through university partnerships, and updated resources and booster trainings provided annually.

To learn more about HealthMPowers and their collaborative work in the sector, visit the programs page on their website, or check out their latest updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Jenna Ovett is communications coordinator for GCN.

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