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Students lead the way ?to a healthier community

Healthy Kids, Healthy Community, part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is an organization dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and granting the community access to healthy food as well as recreation and physical education. Affiliated with but separate from the Massachusetts Avenue Project's "Growing Green" program, HKHC meets approximately once every two months and is working to develop a more expansive youth council of high school students throughout the city. Its three leaders – Eric Alcosiba, a junior at Tapestry Charter School; Susan Miller, a senior at Tapestry; and Patience Nimely, a senior at Bennett High School – try to meet weekly with directors Jessie Hersher and Erin Sharkey.

"I hope to see young people who are excited and inspired," Hersher said. "I think of them as young stakeholders. Wherever they go from here, I hope they're thinking about making life and their community a little better."

NeXt spoke with Eric, Susan and Patience about their involvement with HKHC.

NeXt: How were you introduced to HKHC?

Eric: Geoff Schutte, the honors adviser at Tapestry, introduced me to the Massachusetts Avenue Project, and the leaders of that program invited me to an HKHC meeting. They were looking for a new youth employee who could do marketing work and graphic design, and because of my artistic ability, I was right for the job.

Susan: I was invited to an audit training over the summer, and after the meeting, I was invited back to be an intern. They asked if anyone was interested in staying involved with the organization, and I agreed to help.

Patience: I applied for a Buffalo summer youth job, and I was accepted at the Massachusetts Avenue Project. From there, I was chosen to be a leader for HKHC.

Q. What have you gotten out of working for HKHC?

Eric: I've learned so much, and it's really interesting. There's a huge sense of fulfillment in knowing that you're doing something that's going to change something eventually. I'm still learning from HKHC. (Eric is the newest addition to the team of leaders at Healthy Kids, Healthy Community.)

Susan: I've been focusing on getting safe school zones. Buffalo hasn't rewritten its zoning codes in 70 years and they are in the process of rewriting them now to make Buffalo "greener." Community members are invited to go to meetings and give input, so I have attended some Buffalo Green Code and Complete Streets meetings. Right now Buffalo is broken up into nine different neighborhoods. I've noticed that around Nichols School there is an entire blue zone, which means there is more protection, but near my school, Tapestry, it's not a safe area, which doesn't make sense considering there are close to 1,000 students. It's really exciting to be part of the Green Code and to have been a part since the beginning. Sometimes the cities cannot be inclusive of young people, but for us they are breaking down the language. They held training for the young people to prepare, and they translated the language concerning what they're passionate about into our vernacular. Soon, I [and all of HKHC] will be getting involved in a family-oriented proposal in which kids will get to help decide what neighborhoods should look like. Younger kids will be asked to draw their current route to school on one piece of paper and then draw what they'd like it to look like on a second piece of paper. HKHC will be helping to host this meeting. We'll provide a setting that makes it easier and more comfortable for the whole family to participate.

Patience: In late February we hosted an event called "Just Lead," which focused on what's important to youth about policy change. We discussed the NFTA, school wellness plans, youth voice and safe school zones. Over the summer I was introduced to a professor from the University at Buffalo and he trained me in how to do audits. We went to two neighborhoods in the city, one on the West Side and the other on the East Side, to gauge the differences in security. We noticed that the West Side had many more pedestrians, so we looked at the safety of their sidewalks and were able to compare them to those on the East Side. In another audit we looked at the availability of healthy food at drugstores. I have also attended some community meetings, including one with the Board of Education. I was asked to deliver a speech on behalf of urban youth about changing health and safety policy. Lately, we have been working with the NFTA to improve student bus passes. We believe that the buses should be accessible and should arrive on time, that the bus drivers should be respectful to young people and flexible about making stops, and that routes should encourage people to go to the city's parks, so we're working to achieve that.

Q. What do you love about working for HKHC, and what do you want other people to know about the organization?

Eric: It's a great way to change your community. It gives you tools to help and experience as well.

Susan: I like working here because it could mean direct changes in our lives. It's a good way for everyone to get involved. Because you can. All you have to do is look, and there's HKHC.

Patience: Working on policy is important to me because I like to change things. I'd rather work on policy than work at McDonald's. Usually adults make all the decisions, but since I'm participating as a young person, my voice can be heard.

Q. How has getting involved with HKHC reshaped your plans?

Susan: I've decided I'd like to major in medicine. It has made me like Buffalo more because I've witnessed all the great people working for a change. I definitely want to come back here after college.

Patience: I've decided to major in international business. It has definitely helped me write my essays for college. I just want to be able to help, change things and have fun. I just like what I do. I'll probably be here some other time talking to younger kids. I'm sure more young people want to participate but don't know where to start. People like us can motivate them.

– Christina Seminara