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Memphis Middle School Students Help Make Community Healthier

Latonyann is one of the students from the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (MAHS) Exit Disclaimer who is making her Memphis community better. The seventh grader became involved with the infant mortality issue after her high school principal came to her because of her writing skills and willingness to become active in causes.

By Jorge Bañales

Latonyann is one of the students from the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (MAHS) Exit Disclaimer who is making her Memphis community better. The seventh grader became involved with the infant mortality issue after her high school principal came to her because of her writing skills and willingness to become active in causes.

The 13 year-old Latonyann said felt compelled to spread the message in her community: "I don't think it's right that babies should die before the age of one, and I want to help other teenagers," she said. "And I've had that situation with my aunt, and my mom had one of my baby brothers and me at a young age and we could've had a risk of that (infant mortality)."

For a week last month, college and high school students from various parts of the United States came together to raise awareness about babies dying prematurely in Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., an area with one of the country's highest infant mortality rates.

Memphis Middle School StudentsActivities involved college students training middle- and high-school students to become peer educators so that they then could raise awareness of the infant mortality issue among people of their own age and in their community. One of the schools in the Memphis area that participated in the event was the Memphis Academy of Health and Sciences.

Following the meeting with the peer counselors, Latonyann said she thought about some ideas of how to go about helping teenagers with the problems of infant mortality.

"I talked to my grandpa about it and I told my neighbors, but I want to go out and tell more people. Put out a flyer and put it out in the community. Have young kids just come in, and we can talk about it, in a community place, where we can all meet up and it's appropriate, where people feel comfortable," she said.

MAHS Executive Director Curtis Weathers said the school had been looking for a community outreach initiative that would involve their students in the improvement of their community's health. After looking at several options, including issues such as childhood obesity, and other childhood diseases, the school settled on the issues related to infant mortality.

MAHS opened in 2003 and was one of the first charter schools in the state of Tennessee. Weathers said two of the school's partners, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital and the Regional Medical Center are very much involved in the issue of infant mortality, and all agreed that this would be a worthwhile enterprise.

"I visited the newborn's center at ‘The MED' where they have all the little ‘preemies' and of course, once you enter that area, you are almost never the same once you see little kids fighting for their lives," Weathers said.

The school has been slowly educating kids and the community about infant mortality, and has sponsored a walkathon focused on the issue. During Memphis Week, MAHS launched its own two-part initiative called Project 38108 which will have students chronicling the stories of families going through, or that have gone through, some issue related to infant mortality. 38108 is one of the zip codes in Memphis where the infant mortality rates are highest.

As part of the project, MAHS's students who are good writers and are interested in the issue of infant mortality will interview families who have lost babies, with the hope of publishing the stories in a book.

Another aspect of the project is the creation of "Message Teams," that will work to keep the issue of infant mortality visible, especially among teenagers and young adults by visiting schools, community centers, and churches, to perform skits, vignettes, and communication pieces that talk about infant mortality and train people on what they could do to prevent some of these deaths.

Maaden Eshete, 26, a student at Morgan State University's School of Community Health and Policy was one of the trainers at MAHS.

"I am interested in maternal and child health; and as a full-time student who also works full-time, the flexibility to work on this during evenings and weekends was ideal," Eshete said. "I signed up for the initial PPE training at Howard (University in Washington, DC) and I have been involved ever since.”

"I became involved with the training at MAHS via an assignment from OMHRC staff," she said. "I was happy to help plan and facilitate the training as I had the opportunity to hold several similar trainings at Morgan State over the past year, and have also had some recent experience sharing the preconception message with middle school and high school age students this past April-- so the chance to do both in the school setting was ideal."

"I had a great team of PPEs to work with, and MAHS staff are committed to their students and made it as easy as possible for us to come in and do what we do," said Eshete. "The students, of course, were the best part – I couldn't have asked for a better group of young people to interact with, teach and learn from."

Jamesia Durden, 21, a PPE and biology and Spanish pre-medicine major from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., became involved in the project because of her own experience: she was born as a premature baby. She says she sees her life as a way to reach out and help families that may be faced with similar situations hers. She hopes to become a neonatologist and this project was a good experience.

Durden says her experience with MAHS students was "phenomenal."

"The students were prepped very well for our arrival. They had prior knowledge of infant mortality and were able to engage in dialog with us which not only allowed us to teach them but also allowed us to learn from them. "

She said students also had creative ideas on how they were going to implement projects in their school to raise awareness about infant mortality. "One idea that I especially liked was the idea of making a published story book that included personal stories of students who had personal accounts of infant mortality. I also viewed the photo album of young lady who lost a sister to infant mortality. This was very touching and even brought me to tears. This young lady made it to the health fair that was held on Saturday and I was able to exchange personal information with her in order to form a better relationship."

"This experience ignited a fire in me to not give up because the community is involved," she said. "Most of all, the students were trained as PPE's and are now armed to go out into the community and spread positive health related messages that help reduce infant mortality rates."

Jorge Banales is a Bilingual Editor/Writer for OMHRC. Comments? Email

Content Last Modified: 6/10/2009 10:55:00 AM
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