‘More Energy… More Possibility:’ Parent Advocates Complete Leadership Institute

August 12, 2010

By Janise Chan, HSC intern

Last week we wrapped up the Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables 2010 Parent Leadership Institute.

The first three sessions informed parents about nutrition and health disparities before equipping them to be leaders and advocates at their schools. This includes establishing a school wellness team, bringing recess back into the school day, and learning how to include food and fitness goals in the school improvement plans. The final day was devoted to engaging parents in the city-wide Go for the Gold campaign and sharing information about the new healthy school food menu changes Chicago Public Schools have made for the coming academic year.

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Liz Isaacs, a mother and a chef, was a first-time attendee of a Healthy Schools Campaign parent training. Liz said: “This training was very enlightening. I have new knowledge of how much support I have. I never realized that there was such a big support network to help kids become healthy.”

Through visits from school leaders, advocates and other guest speakers, parents learned about the framework they could use to make their voices heard in schools. They also learned and about the different organizations and programs that can provide resources and support. Many speakers joked that they were “preaching to the choir,” as many of the parents in attendance are involved in their local school councils and other committees.

Indeed, many of the parents are on-the-ground experts in issues of school wellness — the Parent Leadership Institute recruited experienced advocates who have been working in their schools and communities to promote wellness. Parents asked challenging questions relevant to their experiences: In low-income neighborhoods, how can we make policy changes to make healthy food more accessible and affordable? In areas of gang violence, how can children have recess outside?

Often, these problems do not have a blanket solution — but because of these sessions, parents were able to network and share the best practices used by their own schools.

And parents learned about simple ways to incorporate healthier habits into their own lives.

By introducing fun exercise breaks and healthy food, the training also encouraged parents to take steps in changing their own health behaviors. Each session incorporated a physical activity break where parents learned a dance, a structured physical activity designed for the classroom, an ab workout, and an aerobics routine, all of which they could practice daily.

The first three sessions’ breakfasts and lunches were catered by Abraham Duenas, owner of Café Cathedral and the recipient of the HSC award for outstanding parent involvement. Along with his lunch menus, Abraham shared the recipes of his healthy, flavorful dishes. During lunch on the last day of the training, Constance Henry from Target Area Development Corporation said, “I’ve been eating healthy for the last four sessions! I’m inspired to go home and try some of these recipes with my family.”

After going through the training, Juana Parrales — who had already started a soccer team with her family in order to exercise more — says she feels motivated and empowered to make changes even beyond her household.

“It’s been a great experience,” Juana said. “I’m hoping to get healthy meals at my school, and recess, too. I feel healthier. . . more energy, more possibility.”

The core of the last session was devoted to asking parent leaders to be part of the Go for the Gold Campaign, a city-wide initiative to prepare Chicago public schools to meet the HealthierUS Scbool Challenge. First Lady Michelle Obama is schools to adopt the program's high standards for food, fitness and nutrition education. Parent leaders committed to engaging their school principals and working to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge.

Parents said they feel assured that they will be successful in meeting the First Lady’s challenge; because of this training, they have new knowledge and a dedicated network of people to support them.

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