February, 2016

Northwestern High School was awarded one of the largest Flint Classroom Support Fund Great Idea Grants of 2015 to fund their inaugural Health and Wellness Fair. In an Interview with three of the organizing committee members, Cassandra Harris (Counselor), Phyllis Jones (Counselor), and Irma Maribel Andrade (College Advisor), we had the opportunity to learn more about this inspiring effort to empower their students and their community.

What made you think of applying for the Flint Great Idea Grant?

Harris: Well, I knew I wanted to do something that would impact all of the students be beneficial to parents. A lot of the time when we have report card pick-up or different parent meetings, we have a parent engagement facilitator but we don’t get a lot of parents to come out. I wanted to try to get parents to come out and get them to interact with us in a more relaxed environment and do something that would be beneficial to parents and families. 

What is the fair going to look like? What do you envision in your mind?

Harris: We have a cafeteria with a hallway that leads down to the gym area. So I'm hoping we’ll have vendors everywhere that deal with health and wellness. Vendors in the cafeteria, with different food samples and literature, and vendors all the way into the gym. I hope our parents will take away big bags of useful stuff that they can have. I'm even envisioning shoes and clothes giveaways. Information about smoking, stopping smoking, or not choosing to smoke. I contacted the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association. I want to bring in our Wellness Center, housed in the far corner of the building, and also our food providers, SodexoMAGIC. So just bringing all of these people in, as well as doing something like Zumba. So mental health, physical health, and all of these different things. Exposing parents to these things and hoping that they may choose even a small lifestyle change that would make for a healthier life for themselves and their families.

What broader impact do you hope that this would have, expanding from your students to the community? Do you see this information permeating to different neighborhoods or parents taking away this knowledge and really disseminating it?

Harris: We're hoping that that will happen. We’re hoping that our parents come first. We’re inviting them first but we're not limiting our invitation to just our parents. We're going to reach out to the entire community. We’re actually talking about canvassing the community and getting our invitations out everywhere so that we can invite the broader community. We want to show our community that this is a community school. That we care. Sometimes, public schools get negative attention and negative publicity. So we're going to try and promote Northwestern and our relationships with students and families in a positive way. 

And if you could name one thing that you hope your students, families, and community members take away from this health and wellness fair, what would that be? 

Harris: That we care. That we not only care about your academic health but we care about your well-being, we care about families, and we want to bring families together.

Andrade: The one takeaway would be the abundance of resources that are available to not only our students but also to the families of those students. Because the Wellness Center that we do have is open to the entire community. So letting people know these are available. You just kind of have to reach out and access them. 

Harris: And we’ve been told that the Wellness Center is having low participation. We’re hoping that people will be more active, utilize the wellness center, and get the word out. We don’t know if everybody’s aware that we have such a wonderful Wellness Center down there. 

Jones: They kind of said it but people need to know that the school is a part of the community. And a lot of the time people just think that it’s just school. They don’t realize that we are just an extension of the community. It is important for them to know that they can come into the school for information, for resources, for support, for all of those things. That the school is a hub of the community just like churches are, especially the north end. The north end side of Flint is underrepresented in terms of how people perceive the city. There’s not a lot of resources on the north end of Flint. So, by providing this outlet, this health fair that will let people know things are happening in the north end of flint. Families that are connected to the school and the community. That is something people need to see…how valuable the north end side of Flint is. We don’t have a grocery store on the north end side of Flint anymore. There are a lot of things that are gone that used to be mainstay in this community. So this health and wellness fair will help people to realize, “Oh wow, we can go to the Northwestern Wellness Center. There’s a place for me with people who will be able to assist me with my needs, whatever they may be.” 

Harris: And they do physicals, flu shots, and other testing at the Wellness Center. It’s not that they (Northwestern parents) don’t care. It’s that they’re working and they have to pick and choose when they can come. So they come when they’re disgruntled or angry. So not only do we want to see a different side of them but we want to show them a different side of us too. 

Is there any unmet need so far in the planning of the health and wellness fair? A vendor that you’ve had difficulty contacting? Or an area of health and wellness that you’ve had difficulty addressing in terms of vendor presence or resource availability?

Harris: Well, I was hesitant to contact everybody because I wanted it to be a part of the student’s responsibility to do it as well. So we’re going to allow the students to connect certain vendors. So far, we’ve had a pretty good turn out. I’m kind of concerned about the mental health aspect. I know we have the healthy eating portion covered. We’ve got physical health covered. Now that the water crisis is huge, we have schools that have reached out to help. And I said, “Why don’t you come and partner with us?” School as far as Waterford and Walled Lake. If you’re raising resources that you would like community members and families to have, once you collect your resources, you can come and set up a table and you can distribute the resources that you have collected. We have a 98-99% black population and these are predominantly Caucasian schools that have reached out. And I think it would be wonderful for the kids to have an opportunity to work together. 

What are your thoughts on the overall trajectory of the future of Flint public schools in general, and some of the biggest barriers that your kids are currently facing and might face in the near future?

Harris: I think transportation is probably one of our biggest issues. Most of our students are bus riders. So I think that limits them from taking advantage of health opportunities in the community. Going to the doctor. They have to pick and choose. Do they want to do something if they have to call a ride or access a ride or do Your Ride? They have to pick and choose, “Is it more important for me to go to a bank or a grocery store or a Family Dollar? Or is it more important for me to go to the doctor and take care of my health? So I’m thinking that one of our biggest barriers, especially on the north end of Flint, is transportation. We have some students that may miss school more in the winter as opposed to spring and summer. Due to some of the vacant houses and vacant businesses in the north end, we have children that when it’s snowing, they have to walk in the street. 

Andrade: Tying in with transportation a little bit, thinking more of after high school, a lot of students have difficulty getting help with scholarships or college applications or working on working on the FAFSA process. I am here as a resource to help students navigate through that. But, unfortunately because it is the whole senior class. A lot the time when I have after school of weekend workshops, same thing…they’re unable to get there or unable to stay. So I’m here and the resources are here. But the access to the resources becomes difficult. There’s only a limited amount of time in the school day. And they have core classes and requirements that they have to meet. So I’m finding that a lot of the students are struggling with, “Well how do I make time for everything if I’m limited by transportation?” Or “I don’t have someone at home who can help me with this scholarship application.” “My parents haven’t filed taxes or the won’t give me that information.” So things like that become kind of complicated. And that’s what came to mind when Mrs. Harris mentioned transportation. So, having those resources but being unable to access them. 

Jones: I find that many of the children that we see today come from a poverty mentality. Many of the families haven’t graduated from high school. Everybody wishes for their children to do better than them. But their actions don’t always match with what they say. They create barriers for their children to be able to accomplish certain things. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think it’s just, “Don’t worry about that. You don’t need to do that.” Or “I don’t have time for you to do that.” Many of our kids have to go home and take care of younger brothers and sisters. You look at the north side of Flint and access to resources are limited. We don’t have that many doctors’ offices on this end of town. And even one of our health coordinators made the reference that many of these parents take their children to urgent care or to emergency before they will take them to their primary physician because it’s easy to get a ride to the hospital. Or the hospital is on the bus line. When you talk to the kids, everybody wants to go to college. Everybody has those aspirations to go but the mindset is not there. The behavior doesn’t match up with what they say they want to do. Their attendance is poor. Their follow-through is not there. There’s a lot of things we need to do with our children. We need to teach them how to get organized. To me, it comes from home. What you’re being taught at home, in the household, sets the precedence for what you do here in school. If you have those parents that are interested in you doing better, not having that poverty mentality, then they stay on their children. “Where’s your homework? Where’s your report card? Are you doing this? Are you doing that?” Some of our parents come up here just to fuss about cell phones. But they won’t ask about their report card or ask to see how they’re doing. I would say, access to resources, access to being able to believe that you can do better in the situation that you’re currently in. I don’t know how you do that. It’s a community thing. It’s a city of Flint thing. To me, this whole crisis with the water makes us victims. And I think we have enough victim mentality in this city. We have to figure out how to help people to do things. You can give somebody food but if you teach somebody how to grow their food or take care of yourself, you can do better. I don’t see that our children have a good mindset of being successful. We can talk until the cows come home but some of those behaviors you have to practice over and over and over. And parents are the first teachers. And if the parents aren’t teaching children those same behaviors to be successful or survivors, or whatever the words are, they’re just kind of going through the motions, “I’m just coming to school. But I’m not really engaged.” A girl told me today, “I HATE school.” I asked her, “Why do you say that?” She replied, “I just do Ms. Jones.” And you go through the whole conversation of why you need school but she maintains that she just hates it. That’s her mindset and her grades reflect that. “You’re 17 years old and you can’t wake up to come to school?” And of course there’s probably a lot of layers of things going on here but just to sit and say, “I HATE school. I don’t want to be here but my mom won’t let me drop out.” Maybe children are depressed. 

Harris: Another concern that I have that I’ve noticed, and I think we’ve all noticed, is that it’s more expensive to make healthy choices. It’s more expensive to buy fruits and veggies and eat healthy. A lot of the time the stores that our children walk to or stores that they frequent don’t have those healthy options. And if they have health options, the healthier options are more expensive than grabbing a candy bar, or grabbing a really inexpensive granola bar that may look healthy but have a lot of sugar in them, or the sugary drinks. It’s cheaper to buy a little juice jug than it is to buy a bottle of water. And people may not know. We’re hoping to let them know we care. But we’re hoping to send them away with some information. Just basic common knowledge that will help improve their health. 

Is there something in the works that you’re hoping to fund through future grant awards? 

Harris: We’re hoping that we can make our Health and Wellness Fair an annual, bigger and better event. Something that parents will look forward to. Aside from that, we want to expand the health and wellness fair because it is going to be an opportunity to tie in students, staff, as well as parents and community members, and SodexoMAGIC and the Wellness Center.