The power of the youth voice is undeniable. When educated about pressing public health issues and galvanized around making positive change within their local communities, youth are positioned to serve as true social change agents.
More than 130 teenagers from Georgia participated in the 2014 Healthy Youth Summit held at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia this past weekend. This unique event, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Chronic Disease Prevention Section and Georgia SHAPE, the Governor’s initiative to increase physical activity in Georgia schools, was designed to educate teens and adults on how to implement policy, system and environmental changes regarding tobacco prevention, smart eating, active living and overall healthy behaviors and decisions.
The theme of this year’s youth summit was titled “My Life. My Health. My Decision.” and was crafted to reflect the importance of youth involvement in impacting and changing the health of their schools and communities.
During the summit, youth were specifically educated about the harmful health impacts of tobacco use and the importance of equal access to healthy food and opportunities to lead active lifestyles. As part of the weekend event, attendees worked together to create action plans that could be readily implemented upon returning to their respective communities.
DPH’s Healthy Youth Summit was presented in partnership with North Carolina-based Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!), a nonprofit organization that equips high school students and their adult leaders with the tools necessary to create changes that positively impact adolescent health. The organization works nationwide offering customized services and nationally-recognized social change models that help increase the influence of young people in their own communities.
Recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey exemplify the need to have proactive discussions regarding healthy youth behaviors. The survey revealed that 15 percent of the nation’s high school students are obese while 16 percent of students were considered overweight. In addition, approximately 40 percent of Georgia middle school students and 16 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes before reaching age 11.
By partnering with a grassroots advocacy organization such as Youth Empowered Solutions, DPH’s Chronic Disease Prevention team is working to expand the success of its programs aimed at helping youth make smarter health decisions. In fact, program leaders have implemented a new movement among Georgia schools specifically targeting youth tobacco prevention. By encouraging school leaders and students to collaborate on policy development, the Chronic Disease Prevention team hopes that prohibiting tobacco use on school campuses will be an important health measure all educational facilities will follow.
“Much of the success we have seen within Georgia’s tobacco-free schools movement is contributed to the power of our state’s youth,” said Kenneth Ray, DPH deputy director, Chronic Disease Prevention Section. “Previous Healthy Youth Summits have mobilized youth to become true leaders around tobacco control in our state. We are confident the most recent summit will yield the same results as education on important topics such as these often resonates on a higher level to teens when delivered by youth rather than adults.”
Although the summit only for two days, DPH Youth Tobacco Prevention Coordinator, Chanelle Jefferson, believes the education has helped empower youth attendees to positively impact the state’s adolescent public health challenges for many years to come.
“The youth attending our 2014 Healthy Youth Summit received valuable training in how to have a voice in the decisions that impact their wellbeing and the health of their schools and communities,” Jefferson said. “Through the training and hand-on educational sessions offered by Youth Empowered Solutions, we now have an additional 130 young people in our state prepared to serve as future leaders in preventing chronic disease through advocacy and peer education for the next generation of our state’s youth.”