Evanston YMCA targets early childhood health concerns

Kelly Hwu, Reporter

Evanston’s McGaw YMCA has begun to gather data and organize community forums to address health issues affecting young children as part of the Pioneering Healthier Communities campaign of the Y-USA.

The national initiative is focused on impacting and preventing childhood obesity through policy reform and changing community environment.

Pioneering Healthier Communities launched in 2004 under Activate America, a mission by the YMCA to tackle the nation’s health failings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. In addition, the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008.

The McGaw YMCA received starting capital from the YMCA of the USA in 2011 and funding from the Evanston Community Foundation to start its own PHC-Evanston branch. Organizations including NorthShore University HealthSystem, Family Focus Evanston and Evanston-Skokie School District 65 have come together to create policy changes, promote discussions and hold educational events for families with young children.

Jonathan Webb, director of development for youth and health at the McGaw YMCA, has been working on the PHC-E initiative. Webb and his colleagues traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with other PHC leaders from across the country and to be briefed on PHC’s agenda along with its implementation logistics and real impact on communities since 2004.

“The youth are one of our most important assets and we owe it to them and our community that they have a healthy start to a good quality life,” Webb said.

PHC-E is currently working on a comprehensive database to track the body mass index of 2-to-5-year-olds and changing policy standards for nutrition and physical activity among children, specifically in the age range of birth to five years.

“Our biggest accomplishment is bringing such a large group together who are concerned about childhood obesity,” Webb said. “We’ve got big names in Evanston and everyone is willing to play together because they’re willing to solve the issue.”

PHC-E is also focusing its efforts on promoting breastfeeding and will host focus groups to educate the community about its benefits, including lowered risks for certain diseases for both mothers and babies.

Janine Lewis, PHC-E committee member and director of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, is a mother of a 4-year-old. Lewis said she breastfed her daughter for 13 months and recognizes the challenges of being a working mother and breastfeeding.

Lewis’ day job addresses maternal and child health topics, and she worked on advocating for breastfeeding education at the hospital level before joining PHC-E.

“It’s been nice to meet other people who care about health prevention, reducing obesity and chronic diseases,” Lewis said. “I’m excited about PHC’s ability to bring together various stakeholders.”

Lewis said PHC-E is planning on doing targeted outreach, mainly in Evanston’s two birthing hospitals. She said in the short term, she wants to get people talking about breastfeeding and hold forums with faith-based leaders, consumers and coordinators.

So far, Webb said PHC-E has spoken to parents about plans to aggregate data for research. He said there are committee members who can speak to local health concerns themselves, but he wants to put forth a comprehensive policy involving more parents.

“Our vision in general is to make a healthier Evanston and make sure every Evanstonian has a good platform in respect to health,” Webb said.

Webb added that although PHC-E is promoted by the YMCA national organization, the McGaw YMCA does not include the Y logo on its PHC material.

“We’re trying to exemplify the fact that we’re calling meetings together and getting people engaged because it’s not our program,” Webb said. “It’s something the community is owning.”

Looking ahead, Webb said PHC-E will start to actually collect data for the local initiative’s personal research. He said PHC-E has already collected initial data from national centers but its objective is to build a unified local database that collects and tracks BMI data from children aged five and younger. Instead of extrapolating data from large databases, Webb said PHC-E strives to use Evanston-specific numbers.

“We’re a couple steps from this becoming a reality,” Webb said. “It’ll be huge because it’ll fill in the gaps in Evanston.”

Webb said PHC-E also hopes to recommend policy and curriculum recommendations for child care and home day care centers. Webb said suggestions would include practices in respect to increasing access to fresh foods and physical activity.

“Health has an impact on everything we do and if kids start on that same level playing field, it gives everybody a fighting chance,” Webb said.