Smiling girl with headphones gives thumbs up while doing a virtual learning session

Empowering Grand Rapids Students to Care for their Mental Health

After a community outreach survey found mental health was a top priority for African Americans living in the Grand Rapids area in 2020, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute decided to make this a priority.

This winter they’ve launched a new initiative that they call the Wellness Adventure Program for students in Grand Rapids schools aged 8 to 15 years old. The first cohort has almost 50 students. The program is made possible, in part, through funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation.

“When kids grow up, we want them to be able to make educated decisions throughout their lives,” said Miguel Gonzales, project coordinator for the Wellness Adventure Program. “We want to help them with their foundational understanding of nutrition, taking care of their bodies and mental health coping skills.”

The program will run through the end of May 2022, and another cohort will begin in fall 2022. Though the sessions are currently virtual due to pandemic health considerations, the goal is for the program to resume in-person sessions.

There are three components: mental well-being, nutrition and physical health and wellness. Mental health builds off good nutrition and physical health.

“We’re helping them to not only identify triggers like stress and anxiety, but apply coping skills to manage it,” Gonzales said. “One of the hardest things to growing up is not knowing how to help yourself.”

The intent of the program is that the students take the knowledge they’ve learned in the program and share with their families, friends and communities.

The students will learn more about nutrition – including when it comes to shopping on a budget, how to read a nutrition facts label and how to cook healthy meals at home. Each participant receives free groceries through the program’s partners to be able to try out their new skills after class.

The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI) has also used partner funding to provide participating students with some basic exercise equipment like jump ropes, resistance bands and yoga mats – all tools that they learn how to use during at-home exercise videos that are a part of the program.

“Learning the connection between how what we eat and how we move our bodies affects our mental health are such critical life skills. We at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation are so encouraged by the way the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute is addressing this need in their community, and helping young people empower themselves with the information they need to lead healthy lives,” said Audrey Harvey, executive director and CEO of the BCBSM Foundation.

The GRAAHI is a leading national organization devoted to achieving health care parity for African Americans. It was established in 2002 in response to data that indicated disparities in health and health care outcomes for African Americans living in Kent County. GRAAHI works to eliminate such inequities at both the health systems level and the community level, an approach taken to maximize effectiveness.

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