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The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois Healthy Communities Award

Mikva Challenge for the Chicago Youth Health Activism Initiative

Eric Young Smith

For some it’s learning how to move and groove to hip-hop yoga. For others it’s doing some peer-to-peer teaching at a student-organized health fair; or having the school cafeteria substitute fresh fruit for potato chips; or providing access to condoms along with solid advice on responsible sex.

The Mikva Challenge Teen Health Council, a diverse group of over 20 youth leaders from high schools across Chicago, first researched the issues then fanned out to recruit, train and support more than 400 teen health activists at 40 public middle and high schools across the region.

The issues they identified in the schools were daunting: an obesity rate double the national average; unacceptable rates of STIs and teen pregnancy; a glaring lack of mental health supports not just at school but throughout poorer neighborhoods.

In keeping with the Mikva model of “action civics,” the Initiative struck a partnership with Chicago Public Schools, whose leadership welcomed the assistance.

Each school took a different approach. With help from donors like the Brinson Foundation some started health clubs and ran health fairs; some installed condom dispensers or brought in Pilates and/or Zoomba exercise instructors – yet all emphasized peer-to-peer learning with older students teaching younger students.

Positive health outcomes will emerge over time, predicts Mikva’s Senior Program Director Joshua Prudowsky. “But right away we see skills developing that will make these students leaders throughout life.”

“At first I said ‘I’m just a kid. They won’t listen to me,’” said Health Council member Kadeejisha Walton, a senior at Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville. But after 15 kids joined the school’s new health club, and 26 volunteered to help work display tables at a health fair “I began to think, yeah, you can have a dream ... and accomplish it.”