Rec-Connect™ Empowers Detroit High School Student Leaders to Foster Peer-to-Peer Physical Activity

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles about people delivering evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible thanks to funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Wayne State University (WSU) Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative worked in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for more than a decade, providing nutrition education and facilitating student-led policy, systems, and environmental (PES) change work to increase healthy eating and access to healthy food in Detroit .

“Our primary focus has always been nutrition, access to healthy food, and nutrition education,” says Dr. Jeanne Barcelona, ​​assistant professor of community health at WSU. “Over the past two and a half years, our student leadership teams have begun to worry about the need for physical activity.”

To meet this need, Barcelona and its colleagues turned to Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) for delivery financing Rec-Connect™ at Cass Technical High School, Detroit School of the Arts, Martin Luther King Jr High Schooland Renaissance High School. Like previous Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative programs, Rec-Connect™ is made possible through funding from MFF’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed). MFF is a state implementing agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is a US Department of Agriculture educational program that teaches SNAP-eligible individuals how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programs throughout the state of Michigan.

“The need for physical activity has really become evident as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barcelona explain. “That’s when it was prioritized by student leaders because everyone was stuck at home. There was no access. Everything was closed. They weren’t at the school, and they really felt like they and their peers needed physical activity.”

Statewide, Rec-Connect™ boosts participation in regular physical activity by assessing community resources, hosting physical activity demonstrations, and providing resources to help participants continue physical activity at home. Rec-Connect™ helps people change the way they think about physical activity and works to create an atmosphere conducive to activity. MFF provides facilitation guides, social marketing materials and messages, training and technical assistance, survey tools, and program evaluation assistance. Due to the pandemic, the Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative team launched Rec-Connect™ in a virtual format.

“What we’ve found particularly useful and relevant about Rec-Connect™ is that it’s really developed to be a sample of different physical activities. … We’ve offered cardio kicks, kickboxing, high-intensity workouts, zumba and yoga,” Barcelona says. “Rec-Connect™ provides a variety of opportunities for kids to be active while sheltering in place, while giving them the chance to try out different activities to see which ones they really enjoy.”

Mickenzy Crowder, Tiffany Jackson, Alexandria Rowe, Janiyah Sherrill, Faith Smith and Xynese Frazier are among the student leaders helping to implement the Rec-Connect™ physical activity program in Detroit schools.
Student leaders from the various high schools involved in Rec-Connect™ for high school students through WSU agree that it is difficult to be motivated to be physically active on their own, without the responsibility of their peers or the encouragement from an instructor. Many student leaders have joined the Rec-Connect™ program when told about it by their physical education or health teachers.

“I joined because I needed volunteer hours,” says Rec-Connect™ student leader Tiffany Jackson. “After joining and being part of this group, I became more active. I didn’t procrastinate or waste time. In fact, I worked with other people to improve the community and make the children in our school more active. .”

“Around the time this opportunity presented itself, I was beginning my journey to get fitter,” says student leader Faith Smith. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is a way to exercise more.’ In fact, I ended up really liking it.”

“I wasn’t really active, especially with the pandemic,” adds student leader Mickenzy Crowder. “I really wanted to become more active. I felt it was a really good opportunity to do that and help other students who might be struggling.”

Student leader Mickenzy Crowder.
Shamira Tellis, ESP Manager for the Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative, facilitates Rec-Connect™. Student leaders agree that his encouragement, along with the involvement of their friends, keeps them coming back. Tellis says she particularly enjoys the Rec-Connect™ Activity Leader guides, handouts and social marketing materials provided by MFF.

“Students outside of the student leadership team mention that it’s hard for them to have the motivation to work out daily, even if it’s just for 30 minutes,” Tellis says. “That’s the biggest barrier I’ve noticed for students when it comes to being active.”

Student leaders are confident of the positive impacts of Rec-Connect™. When the pandemic shutdowns shut down high school sports, Jackson, a volleyball player, says she “got lazy.” The Zoom physical activity demonstration sessions got him moving again, even in the summer months.

Student leader Tiffany Jackson.
“It really reminded me that being physically active is something I need to do,” she says. “I think it helps the students to get a base to train. They get encouragement and they feel like they can do it on their own. My family also joined me and we all train together. It gave us family time which is also very funny.”

Rec-Connect™ student leaders also pride themselves on being inclusive.

“We welcome everyone and make it a point to reach out to those who may feel marginalized,” Smith said. “Every student who has ever joined a call or more than one call, I feel like an achievement. I know some of those who have participated have done so because of our recruitment. Many have says they weren’t even active before. They’ve never played a sport, never done anything that was like that. We’ve built a community. We’re always there for each other.

Student leader Faith Smith.
Barcelona looks forward to expanding Rec-Connect™ to include face-to-face demonstrations held with community partners – for example, community centers, gymnasiums and the WSU campus. She sees the program as a way to catalyze healthy change as more young people make physical activity a permanent part of their lifestyle.

“We had found, before COVID, that collectively we weren’t really engaging in our parks or thinking about walkable and friendly environments,” Barcelona says. “Now it’s our job to help make that happen. I think with Rec-Connect™ we’ve created an atmosphere where young people want to be active every day and we show them how to do it. whether they are at school, at home or in places in our community.


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