A crowd of about 200 students from Kindergarten to twelfth grade made its way into a school gym in rural Newbern, Ala. They wandered to displays at about 15 or so tables set up along the gym walls. They planted spinach seeds in decomposable pots of soil at one table, competed in jump rope contests at another and marveled at the amount of sugar in a single Pop Tart at another.
In between the activities, they had their glucose levels tested, their body mass indexes measured and their blood pressure checked.
This was the Sunshine School Health Fair held on Sept. 27, 2013, organized by the College of Community Health Sciences’s Institute for Rural Health Research and open to students, parents and the surrounding community of Newbern.
The outreach project was part of a $900,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and support collaborative research between academic researchers and residents of Alabama communities disproportionately impacted by poor health.
The Project UNITED grant, as it is called, that made the Sunshine School Health Fair possible, was funded by the Community Based Participatory Research Initiative of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the NIH.
The grant focuses on reducing obesity in rural Alabama through community-based participatory research. The Sunshine School was one ofthe sites chosen by the Project’s community advisory board for a pilot study, says John C. Higginbotham, PhD, associate dean for Research and Health Policy for the College, director ofthe Institute for Rural Health Research and one ofthe grant’s principal investigators.
The school came up with a list of ways Project UNITED could help, including the organization of a health fair, which Principal Charla Jordan said was a success in educating both students and the community about health.
“As a kid, you hear about issues like high blood pressure and associate that with adults,” Jordan said. “But here they are learning and realizing that these things are possible with young kids as well.”
Michele Montgomery, PhD, RN, assistant professor at the UA Capstone College of Nursing, said she screened children who had elevated blood pressure and needed to be referred to a physician. For this reason alone, Montgomery says, the health fair was a benefit to the children.
“You don’t know if they are getting a regular health checkup,” she said. “Like these kids (with elevated blood pressure)—they may not have noticed otherwise ifnot getting a physical. Health behaviors they develop now—like healthy eating and exercise—will help them later in life.”
Eunice Briggins, a mother of three who currently attend Sunshine School and two who have already graduated, said she came for her health screening to support the school, and she’s glad she did.
“I now know I need to cut down on my salt intake with my girls and me to lower my blood pressure,” she said, as she turned to her daughter beside her. “Did you know you’re only supposed to eat one Pop Tart out of the package?” she asked with a laugh.
Briggins says she’s glad the health fair was held because it’s a way to keep students and families healthy.
“That’s especially if they aren’t going out to get checked,” she said. “Some people don’t have transportation.”