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Healthy U at the YMCA of Grand Rapids

Healthy U, a no-cost wellness and health education program for low-income children (K-12) in the Grand Rapids area, is part of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ Healthy Living Hubs. More than 30 schools and community-based centers across greater Grand Rapids host the twice weekly, year-round Healthy U nutrition and fitness sessions.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids Executive Director of Community Outreach Julie Sielawa: Relationships. All the good intentions and innovative programs in the world don’t hold a candle to the power of honest, authentic relationships. Healthy U staff draws kids out, gets them moving, and builds lifelong friendships in the name of good health. Whether we are encouraging children to become more active, constructing community gardens, facilitating hands-on nutrition education, or
Healthy U gets kids moving and keeps them moving, but behavior change does not happen overnight. Communities need to work together to promote good health for everyone.
teaching families the importance of active play, the YMCA’s Healthy U program is designed to provide our neighbors with the tools necessary to make the healthy choice the easy choice
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Movement has to be fun! Kids want to laugh, sweat, dance, and dream, and kids and their families will remain dedicated when they enjoy what they are doing. Skills development is big especially when it comes to exercise because many kids come not knowing how to do things like dribble a soccer ball. We practice skills and then use them. Not necessarily by playing an actual soccer game, but maybe other simple, fun games. 
This year we made a stronger commitment to incorporating fun into every lesson – whether that is through education, active play or hands-on nutrition. It includes cooking and tasting with a focus on eating healthy snacks and more fruits and vegetables. We can talk about zucchini, but if a child has never seen or tasted one, they will not encourage their families to buy them or eat them. 
Kids are our future. They are brilliant, resilient, and eager to get active. They don’t want to be unhealthy.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
Healthy U reaches a phenomenal amount of children annually, but there are thousands more we aren’t reaching. Afterschool programs are being cut in many communities, and sadly, in many schools, physical education is still not viewed as a priority.
Healthy U gets kids moving and keeps them moving, but behavior change does not happen overnight. Communities need to work together to promote good health for everyone.
Everyone involved in Healthy U is committed to improved health and has the capacity to lead others down that path.
Families are struggling to make ends meet, jobs are scarce, kids need safe places to get active and parents need resources. Families tell us that they are starved for opportunities to learn healthy habits. One of the lessons we learned this year includes finding innovative ways to get parents engaged. Reaching kids is easy – just connect fun with food, but reaching parents is more difficult. We need to continue to be creative and make parent education a priority.
What really differentiates this program?
Rather than suggest that families need to leave their community to improve their overall health, we take the Healthy U program to where they are – to schools and community centers to develop opportunities that fit the unique character of each neighborhood and its culture. Schedules and classes are built to accommodate community needs and interests.
Kids need to understand that personal wellness can happen anywhere; we do this through children’s programs that build academic skills while teaching healthy lifestyles in a fun, safe environment. The result has been an increase in the amount of time Healthy U participants spend in moderate to vigorous physical activity and lessons in hands-on cooking classes that are designed to promote locally grown foods.
We have a Veggie Van that delivers fresh, locally grown produce to many Healthy U schools, to low-income housing centers -- to wherever demand is highest to increase access to good nutrition. Healthy recipes are highlighted weekly so families can try foods that might be new to them and taste fun, simple recipes that are cost effective to prepare.
At one local school, each student was given a quarter and encouraged to purchase their favorite fruit or vegetable from the Veggie Van. Locally grown apples were a big hit and the students enjoyed it.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Innovation, a willingness to create opportunities that promote good health, and a genuine desire to meet children where they are. These keys have helped us build a strong framework for a healthier Grand Rapids. A multi-faceted approach has also played a part in our success, with our focus on increasing physical activity and active play for our children, promoting healthy food, and teaching parents the essentials of well-being.
In addition, effective evaluation shows us that what we do works. We are dedicated to measuring our impact, since measuring the effect we have holds us accountable to upholding evidence-based standards. For example, we know that increased time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity makes people healthier. We know that enjoying exercise makes people more likely to be active for life. And we know that changing eating behaviors to include healthier options is a process that builds over time.
We want to be successful, so we count on outstanding external evaluators who are experts in youth development, exercise science, and nutrition. Interwoven in these evaluation efforts is a focus on impacting racial equity and health disparities through a focus on relationships, community building, and empowerment.
What are people in your program most inspired by?
Participants are inspired by strong, positive role models, by individuals who treat them with dignity and respect, and by YMCA staff who promote healthy living and community values through fun. Everyone involved in Healthy U is committed to improved health and has the capacity to lead others down that path. One mother recently expressed her gratitude to us for blessing her daughter with a deeper knowledge of her health. She reported that if her three-year-old child was ‘getting it,’ then all of the children we reach are the new generation of health.
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  • YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids
    To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.


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