Dearborn-based (LAHC) has honed the art of bringing community residents and organizations together while ensuring that the unique perspectives of Arab Americans, refugees and immigrants are present at the table during decision-making processes.
“Having people representing the community on our SNAP-Ed team is really critical to ensuring these perspectives are included in our outreach,” says Kelly Citron, LAHC Healthy Living program manager. “For example, Linda Bazzi, our program coordinator and public relations contact, is local and lives in the community. She is great at connecting with other residents and local immigrants and refugees so their thoughts and opinions are included. They feel comfortable talking to Linda and giving her honest feedback.”
LAHC’s programs are made possible in part by funding from the Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). MFF is a state executive agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the educational component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is a US Department of Agriculture educational program that teaches SNAP-eligible people how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programs throughout the state of Michigan.
“It was good to learn best practices and tips for community engagement and collaboration from the MFF staff,” says Bazzi. “Without one of these two things, no effort will succeed.”
WhatsApp lets people know what’s going on
LAHC uses the WhatsApp messaging platform to form meaningful connections with participants in the SNAP-Ed program. With the app, they can share tips on where and how to access healthy, nutritious food and exercise opportunities, and get feedback.
“When community members join our courses, they are voluntarily added to our WhatsApp group,” says Citron. “We have separate WhatsApp groups for different schools as well as for different focuses. So if a specific group wants to be kept up to date on all of our physical activity opportunities, we can send out a WhatsApp group chat about an upcoming session we’re holding virtually. Or, if the activity is on-site at one of our schools, we connect to that school’s WhatsApp group.”
In addition to event information and registration links, people will also receive reminders, abridged versions of LAHC’s social media posts, bilingual recipes and nutrition tips. To prevent attendees from being overwhelmed with messages, LAHC has disabled chat-back for most groups and encouraged attendees to contact LAHC staff with questions instead.
“We have a group of 10 participants who were in one class and all of their children go to the same school,” says Bazzi. “They didn’t necessarily know each other before, but they’ve become such good friends that they’d like to chat. We’ve found that our classes bring people together who may not have known each other before. The connection they’ve made in our classes and via WhatsApp, they stay in touch as a group when our eight weeks are up.”
Creating social networks beyond their SNAP-Ed programming has mattered to moms, especially in recent years as the pandemic curtailed social interactions.
Through SNAP-Ed, LAHC has found a variety of ways to successfully respond to the unique needs of their community. For example, recipes used in LAHC’s cooking classes use halal ingredients to ensure they meet Islamic dietary guidelines. Because of the SNAP-Ed work done in partnership with Dearborn Public Schools, the district adopted a policy to allow community organizations to use school facilities for programming. Now LAHC can offer women-only fitness classes in safe spaces where Muslim women wearing hijabs feel comfortable to exercise together.
Women at an LAHC training course.
“We’ve worked really hard to build trust in our community and to make people feel comfortable about our events and about our staff,” says Bazzi. “We were able to create the space for women-only fitness opportunities at the school or LAHC, where women feel comfortable exercising, receive personalized fitness instruction, and have fun doing it in a safe space.”
A family enjoys a StoryWalk®.
LAHC also partnered with Healthy Dearborn, Beaumont Hospital and Dearborn Public Schools’ Communities In Schools of Michigan (CIS) affiliate to bring StoryWalk® exhibits to the community at four locations throughout Dearborn. StoryWalk® is a movement and literacy building initiative that features children’s books with healthy messages. Book pages reproduced on outdoor signage are then placed along the walking routes. It’s an innovative way for families to enjoy reading and being active together.
“My elementary school principal and I were talking about bringing StoryWalk® into the school,” says Amal Qayed, Salina Elementary’s CIS liaison. “Then one day I was walking down the hall and bumped into Linda Bazzi, my best friend at LAHC. She asked me, ‘What do you think of a StoryWalk®?’”
This synergy helped them decide to move forward with the project.
Books were selected for each site and purchased with funds from the Beaumont Health Foundation: ‘Duck on a Bike’ by David Shannon, ‘Growing Vegetable Soup’ by Lois Ehlert and ‘The Big Dance’ by Aoife Greenham. Then Qayed suggested “Ameer’s Beautiful Home” by Nadeen Saad, Nesreen Saad and Julia Almasarweh. With the permission of the authors, LAHC provided an Arabic translation for the book, which was to be exhibited in both English and Arabic. The Community Storywalk®, which originated at Salina Elementary, is one of the few bilingual Storywalks® in the state because it was important to reflect the community in which it was presented.
Cutting the ribbon for a StoryWalk® exhibition organized by Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities and other partners.
“This book really speaks to our community,” says Qayed. “A little boy grows a plant to improve the air. The Salina Elementary School is located in an industrial area. We have factories all around us, so you can imagine the pollution. We try to bring as much green into our school as possible to tackle this pollution. I was very excited to be able to use this book specifically.
Healthy streets, healthier residents
Another LAHC SNAP-Ed initiative involves working with the Healthy Dearborn Coalition on their Dearborn Healthy Streets initiative. Healthy Roads aims to increase physical activity along roads by placing signage and barrels in selected areas to encourage motorists to slow down. Through this initiative, LAHC makes it easier for people to practice the healthy behaviors that LAHC teaches them in direct education classes.
Signs used in the Dearborn Healthy Streets initiative.
Healthy Streets has made the community more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, which not only addresses transportation needs but also provides opportunities for physical activity. LAHC employees serve as block captains, which helps the organization better understand and respond to the needs of their community.
“Every few weeks we go down to the actual streets, walk all the way, straighten the barrels and make sure the signs are pointing in the right direction,” says Bazzi. “The residents talk to us. I received many thank you’s, answered questions and shared the site with them so they can learn more. We got a really good response.”
LAHC also conducts SNAP-Ed direct education programs at five other Dearborn public schools serving preschoolers, fifth graders and students’ families. In all of its work, LAHC places cultural responsiveness at the forefront.
“Whenever we run a program or partner with Healthy Dearborn to work on initiatives, we always keep in mind our diverse, multicultural families that make up our community,” says Citron. “We make sure that everyone is represented, that they can participate and benefit from everything we offer.”
Through their SNAP-Ed work, LAHC meets their community where it is by building relationships that connect residents to resources and education that inspire healthy living.