In the predominantly Latino and African-American community of South Los Angeles, approximately 30% of youth are obese. This is significantly higher than national, state and city averages, and represents a distressing disparity in health. Few programs exist to meaningfully engage youth as health leaders in the fight against obesity.
The Youth Health Leadership Program (YouHeaL) is an innovative train-the-trainer approach to empower minority high school students in South LA as agents of positive health change. Through a series of capacity-building programs, youth participants advance from initially learning about health and completing obesity-related service projects, to serving as health educators for their peers, and ultimately, to training other peer health educators. By channeling the boundless potential of youth into health education and service, YouHeaL hopes to generate a self-sustaining and ever-expanding grassroots movement to curb the obesity epidemic in South LA.
The YouHeaL program applies core principles of Popular Education to empower youth to take charge of their own health and the wellbeing of their communities. Collective learning takes place in a participant-driven approach which brings the knowledge and experience of youth to the forefront. Youth are encouraged to use their mind, body and heart to take action to create more equitable health conditions in South LA.
The YouHeaL program combines learning with practice through a series of evidence-based, culturally-tailored materials focused on obesity prevention and community action. Participants learn about various individual and social determinants of health while completing skills-based activities such as reading nutrition labels, shopping for healthy groceries, and public speaking. Physical activity and healthy cooking occur weekly. Through service projects and their role as peer health educators, youth have the opportunity to translate this knowledge into action and thereby reinforce their own health behaviors.
The YouHeaL program has empowered minority youth to identify health challenges in their community, implement original service projects, and serve as health educators for a large number of peers. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive among parents and participants who report improvements in diet, exercise, body composition, and feelings of empowerment. Preliminary results from validated surveys and body measurements confirm many of these changes.
The YouHeaL program views its participants and other South LA residents as ‘community experts’ whose insights and experiences are essential to creating effective and lasting health change. Through utilizing youth focus groups, parent gatherings, and a Community Advisory Board comprised of families, schools, researchers and nonprofit organizations, we strive to ensure that the community’s voice is represented in all aspects of the YouHeaL program.