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Empowering Missouri to Make Healthy Choices

May 15, 2010

America Walks Board Member Ian Thomas reports on the inspiring Unite for Healthy Neighborhoods (U4HN) Community Workshop. The goal was to empower Columbia, MO, residents to make healthy choices . Hosted by the Healthy Environment Policy Initiative (HEPI) project team, the event brought together community leaders, national speakers, citizens, and advocates all focused on creating a healthy environment for children.

Held on Friday evening, April 9 at Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and on Saturday, April 10 at the Activity and Recreation Center (ARC), the event was open to anyone in the community with an interest in making a change for a healthy lifestyle.

“The focus was to bring together a diverse audience from all walks of life to rally behind a common cause,” said event co-chair Sam Robinson. “We wanted to raise awareness, educate, and empower the participants to fight against childhood obesity in a culturally sensitive manner,” he said.

Friday featured a welcome from community co-chairs Robinson, Verna Harris-Laboy, and Eduardo Crespi. A healthy dinner was served to all participants and local children provided entertainment. Keynote speakers Erika Allen, of Growing Power, Inc, and Lucy Gomez-Feliciano from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, spoke about the things they are doing in Chicago to help low-income youth live healthier lives.

Saturday morning’s program had attendees breaking into small groups for discussion. According to Stacia Reilly, an organizer of the event and a HEPI team member, the Saturday sessions gave citizens the opportunity to come up with grass-roots solutions to the issues that affect childhood obesity. Issues such as recreational opportunities, access to locally grown foods, and safe routes to school were discussed.

Lunchtime speaker Eduardo Sanchez, Chief Medical Officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, spoke about how healthy living in children can lead to increased academic achievements and that it is up to community members to make a healthy environment for children.

The project team recognized that living healthy is not always easy, so Saturday afternoon was dedicated to hand-on activities, such as gardening demonstrations, walkability audits, and a bike ride. “People wanted some help,” said Harris-Laboy. “Someone to take the lead and show them how it’s done.”

Robinson saw the event as “a springboard to action” and hopes all U4HN participants will attend the follow up event on Thursday, May 27. At that meeting the HEPI team will report back on what was learned at the workshop and invite residents to get involved in the steps necessary to make change happen.

Harris-Laboy said that participants told her they were glad they had attended the workshop. “They were impressed, enlightened, informed and are ready and open to opportunities,” she explained. “People want to feel good, look good and want their families healthy and whole. The transformations are beginning to occur.”

U4HN was held as part of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) program. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HKHC is a national program focused on creating healthier communities through policy advocacy.

The Columbia effort is managed by the local Healthy Environment Policy Initiative (HEPI) project team. The focus of the HEPI team is to identify successful strategies to create a healthier environment for low-income youth. The Missouri Foundation for Health was also a major sponsor of the workshop.