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Modeling healthy choices

Students in Burns grew a garden as part of Youth Advocates for Health. (Photo courtesy Harney County 4-H)

Sarah Watson was not conscientious about exercise and diet before she joined Youth Advocates for Health, an Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H  youth development program of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

As a Benton County 4-H member throughout middle school and high school, Watson had ridden and shown horses. In her senior year at West Albany High School, she took on a new leadership role in Benton County 4-H, mentoring younger students on healthy choices and planning a community service day for younger children.

“Learning about being healthy in Youth Advocates for Health has really helped me to think about eating right and exercising,” says Sarah, who plans to become a horse trainer. “Being a horse trainer is a very physically demanding job. Now I also want to work with younger kids and bring the community into my work.”

Through Youth Advocates for Health, or YA4-H!, teens such as Sarah are mentoring younger children in communities from Astoria to Ontario to help them make healthy choices. Beginning in 2011 with program training and 21 startup grants, dozens of youth and adults participated in the program across the state, and are training teens to become health teachers for younger children in after-school clubs and community service projects.

“The ‘teens as teachers’ and advocates model isn’t unique to YA4-H! — it’s one of our key ways to work with youth in all 4-H programs,” says Mary Arnold, CPHHS professor, 4-H Extension youth development specialist and coordinator of the statewide YA4-H! program. “What’s new are two aspects — developing a more formal curriculum to train teens how to teach, and teens becoming ambassadors in their communities for health.”

Mary Arnold, CPHHS professor, 4-H Extension youth development specialist and coordinator of the statewide YA4-H! program.

Michelle Carrillo, an OSU Extension 4-H educator in Curry County, received a YA4-H! grant this year to establish school gardens in Gold Beach and Brookings. Working with the Oregon Youth Transition Program, which prepares youth with disabilities for employment, Michelle is meeting weekly with a dozen enthusiastic teens in Gold Beach. The teens are writing a business plan to sell their produce at a local farmers market.

“It’s really rewarding to see them so excited and enthusiastic about their project,” Michelle says. “I can really see a beautiful future for this group.”

It’s a community effort. Gold Beach High School’s shop class is building the garden’s raised beds; the students are raising starts in their greenhouse; and local Master Gardeners provide a helping hand.

Teens in Brookings, meanwhile, will work with Azalea Middle School science students during the school year, focusing on gardening and healthy living.

On the other side of the state in Burns, about a dozen teens started a garden last summer, says Shana Withee, an OSU Extension 4-H youth educator in Harney County. Funded by a YA4-H! grant, the garden was located in front of the High Desert Park & Recreation swimming pool. The high desert’s growing season lasts only 73 days. So Burns High School agriculture classes grew all their crops from seed in their greenhouse and the 4-H teens transplanted the starts; teens planted peas and corn as early as May; and they covered the plants with plastic to protect them from cold.

In August, teens and 4-H staffers held tasting events so the community could sample tomatoes, eggplant, salsa, and salad.

Gold Beach High School student Daniel Lopez pots strawberry starts. (Photo courtesy Curry County 4-H)

“One girl tried a raw, fresh tomato and said with a big smile, ‘It tastes like sunshine,'” Withee says.

The teens, in turn, became “heroes” of the garden.

“Kids recognized them at fair and at the grocery store. Kids treated them as role models and were excited to see them,” Withee says.

Teens are currently planning this year’s project, a bigger garden.

At the edge of the Idaho border, a dozen Latinas from Ontario School District’s Migrant Education Program power Malheur County’s YA4-H! program. Teens meet every other week with Barbara Brody, an OSU Extension 4-H educator. The teens reached 505 children last year with lessons twice a month that covered science, gardening, nutrition, hand washing, and exercise. They have stayed with the program and become friends, role models and teachers, Brody said proudly.

The program has empowered the teens to become community leaders, Brody says.

Stephanie Juarez, the Ontario YA4-H! club president, taught a group of second-graders how to read food labels. She was thrilled to see how quickly the younger students understood the importance of the label.  Stephanie later wrote about her experience as a teacher in a college scholarship application.

“I was very surprised, considering that I had just only recently learned how to read a nutrition label during my sophomore year of high school,” Stephanie wrote. “I found this experience to be a benefit to both us as the teachers and to the students who were learning from us.”

The program has rewards for the teens as well as for their young charges. “All of the teens have improved academically,” Brody says. “Some were not on track to graduate. I ran into one girl’s dad at a family math and science night and he told me, ‘Because of you, Martha’s graduating this year.'”

The statewide program is expanding. Mary is training more counties to implement the curriculum and aims to fund more youth gardens this year.

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