Project SHARE students with M.J. Tooey (center) at the University of Maryland Health Sciences and Human Services Library.
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They are taking part in Project SHARE (Student Health Advocates Redefining Empowerment), a partnership between the University of Maryland Health Sciences and Human Services Library and Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a magnet high school in Baltimore city. For them, the fun is in tackling new challenges, forging new friendships and becoming advocates for issues that are important to them.
"Project SHARE engages high school students to advocate for better health at the personal, family and community levels," said M.J. Tooey, Executive Director of the UMHS/HS Library.
Two afternoons a week for a full school year, they study topics like health literacy, medical terminology and cultural competency, and practice critical leadership and professional skills. In the summer, they work in small groups to create health advocacy projects. Students also have hands-on support and mentoring from the UMHS/HS Library staff and other experts in the community. Past collaborations have resulted in the development of an online resume tool for students interested in health-related fields, and a letter writing campaign, aided by area law students, to push for more nutritious meal options in city schools.
"The program is really unique," said Tooey. "We have not been able to find another one like it in the country." UMHS/HS is the first library to sign on as a member of the National Partnership for Action, a multi-sector effort to mobilize a nationwide, comprehensive, community-driven and sustained approach to combating health disparities. "Our students in Project SHARE know that health disparities result in significant problems in their communities. We want to begin empowering them with the tools and knowledge that allow them to lead efforts to change that, now and in the future."
"Librarians, particularly those in public, school and nonprofit sectors, consider community outreach to be a core component of their services," said Faye Williams, Library Services Manager at the Office of Minority Health Resource Center. The HHS Office of Minority Health is the coordinating agency of the National Partnership for Action. "There is enormous potential for Project SHARE to become a replicable model for community-academic partnerships nationwide." The project is funded by a National Library of Medicine (NLM) Grant 1G08LM011079-01, "Empowering Student Community Advocates to Reduce Health Disparities."
On this summer-like day, the students are gathered in one of the library's windowless classrooms to learn about best practices in public speaking. At the start of class, the chatter dies down and all eyes are on Tooey as she talks about the connection between good public speaking skills and persuasiveness. In just three weeks, they will face a "pop quiz" of sorts, where they will take on the role of an advocate arguing for funding a particular health issue. As students break to practice their 35-second speeches (which will be filmed today so that they can go back and critique their performances), they accept the challenge, and bravely face the camera.
"It's good to see yourself on video, so you can see what you're doing wrong and you can improve," said James Brown, a 2012 SHARE graduate who returned this year to serve as a volunteer ambassador to the incoming cohort. Garnell Purcell, an 11th grade student in the current cohort, agreed, citing the long-term benefits. "It's exceptionally helpful in preparing ourselves for future presentations."
Another important aspect of Project SHARE is the exposure that students get to the organizations that make up the vast health care network in the city, and vice versa.
"Maryland faces a shortage of qualified health care workers – especially those with knowledge and experience working with diverse communities," Tooey said.
Last year, students visited with staff at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center and the National Library of Medicine, and volunteered at a local homeless shelter. To strengthen those relationships and help build the program, Tooey and her colleagues convene an advisory council from the community that meets quarterly, and the project team produces a newsletter for parents at the school.
Many students have already put the knowledge acquired from Project SHARE to good use. Antoinette Moore, a 2012 graduate, was able to help her aunt find credible health information after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"We looked at our family history, which I hadn't done before, and it really made me think differently about my own health," said Holly Stevenson, a current Project SHARE participant and 11th grade student.
"Good health is a lifelong journey," said Tooey. "Healthier children tend to become healthier adults and make better choices in their lives and for their families and communities. It's never too early to begin on that path."
For more information on Project SHARE, visit http://guides.hshsl.umaryland.edu/SHARE .