Healthy Kids Resource Fair Opens Doors to Good Health

Presently, more than 70,000 Chicago Public Schools students who are eligible for health insurance lack coverage. That’s 20 percent of students in one of the largest school districts in the country.

Through a new initiative called Opening Doors, United Way of Metro Chicago and CPS aim to reduce that number. By directly connecting families to healthcare navigators,  they’re able to help parents research, identify and enroll in health insurance plans. This approach effectively simplifies a process that often deters low-income families from accessing vital care. 

With a goal of enrolling 10,000 students in Medicaid and Marketplace health insurance over the next two years, United Way and CPS, in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, hosted on Saturday its first Healthy Kids Resource Fair. This free event allowed neighborhood  students and their families to meet with navigators and explore other health and household resources.

Stationed in Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin, booths of more than a dozen non-profits and businesses lined the hallways, offering a range of services and information. Vendors were on hand to help attendees with everything from reducing utility costs to counseling to enrolling families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“One of the greatest challenges with closing the gap between eligible and enrolled children and families has been limited enrollment staff within schools and a lack of accessible enrollment sites across many communities,” said Jose Rico, senior vice president of Community Impact at United Way of Metro Chicago. “The Opening Doors Initiative is enabling us to widen our reach across neighborhoods and provide increased opportunities for enrollment education and assistance.”


Promoting healthy lifestyles

As part of the resource fair, Matt Forte, a former Chicago Bears football player and United Way ambassador, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository teamed up to teach students, including athletes from Michele Clark High School and community members, the importance of adapting a healthy lifestyle.

While whipping up a kale and apple salad in a cooking demo, Matt broke down the benefits of making healthy food choices, like adding dark greens into your diet to improve energy and reduce deadly health conditions like heart disease. “It’s important to educate these kids on how important health is,” Matt said. “Unfortunately, in the Chicago area, the resources and educational aspect of healthy eating and living is not so prevalent in certain communities.” 

Matt’s lessons of football and healthy lifestyles were well-received by the young athletes in the audience, including Lamont Pringle, a student basketball player at Michele Clark High School. “I learned new things about kale and new ways to use it,” Lamont said before heading back to the court. “It was helpful, and it’ll help me improve my game. And it actually tasted good.”

Following the demo, community members were sent home with samples, apples and recipes to make the salad and other healthy dishes at home.

As the newest United Way of Metro Chicago ambassador, Matt is excited to work with United Way and CPS to promote healthy living in communities that often lack access to quality goods and to improve the number of students and parents enrolled in healthcare. A father of three and long-time athlete, Matt views access to healthcare as the foundation for educational and life success.

“Some students don’t see doctors for an entire year or they don’t have a healthcare provider. That translates back to graduation rates and being attentive in class,” Matt said. “If you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to perform well no matter what you’re doing, whether that’s sports or education.”

Those within the school system share similar sentiments.

“Children  with unaddressed vision, dental, hearing or mental health problems do not perform in school as well as they could, said CPS Chief Health Officer Dr. Kenneth L. Fox “We want to prevent health problems from occurring and eliminate health-related barriers to learning. We must act to get kids covered, and Opening Doors helps us take action in ways that matter now and have profound impact over a student’s life course.”


Looking forward to healthier futures

United Way and CPS recognize that there’s still much work to be done. The Opening Doors Initiative is focused on four networks with the greatest need – Networks 1, 2, 3 and 10 – where additional trained healthcare navigators are serving children and families in schools and community-based organizations.

At United Way, we believe that schools should be “community hubs” were students and families can find life supports in addition to a quality education. The Opening Doors Initiative is intended to meet families where they are, and, in turn, make healthcare enrollment more accessible than ever to these communities.

“We see schools as a community engagement hub, a location where community can come in and be serviced in many different aspects – not just through educational curriculum but anything from enrollment in health insurance to behavioral health services,” said Sergio Obergon, manager of CPS’ Children and Family Benefits Unit in the Office of Student Health and Wellness.


Little Village Students, Chicago Bears Huddle Up to Talk Character

Middle school is hard. It’s a time when young people are trying to figure out their friendships, their emotions and who they want to be. For some students at Spry Community School in Little Village, the challenges outside of school are even greater. With so much on their plates, things like character development and building healthy relationships are often far from their minds.

But Henry and Alex, two 8th graders at Spry, aren’t letting life’s hardships stand in their way of becoming strong leaders.

Both soft-spoken and shy on the surface, these boys are quick to stand up for others. Described by their teacher as “upstanders,” Alex and Henry are in tune with how their classmates are feeling. “Alex is good at bridge building and helping students handle conflicts,” said Ms. Nelson, explaining that he is often the first to step in and diffuse a tense situation. “Henry is good at noticing who is being left out or alone and including them,” she added.

While these traits are likely due to a natural intuition, these young men had some help putting the language to their feelings and those of their peers.

Spry is one of 51 schools across the Chicago region using the Character Playbook curriculum, a program designed to help cultivate and maintain healthy relationships during students’ most critical school years. And both the teachers and students have seen the difference.

“The program helped me understand best my feelings, or emotions or how I react to certain things,” said Alex, “One thing I learned is how like, body science – how you can tell when someone’s upset or how they’re feeling, so I try to help them out by talking to them.”

“With the Playbook I learned what other feelings of the other person are like,” added Henry. “I think it will help me later on to know even if I don’t know people and they’re going through something, I can just stand up because I know how they’re gonna be feeling if they’re going through something hard.

Using a graphic novel format, the Character Playbook online course walks students through a series of interactive exercises that help them to better understand their own values and how they can relate to others. These online modules are paired with offline curriculum that helps the students put what they’ve learned into practice. For the 8th graders of Spry, it culminated in a visit to Soldier Field and an opportunity to meet the Chicago Bears.

When the students arrived at Soldier Field, they were greeted outside of the Bears locker room by Chris Draft, Jerry Azumah, James ‘Big Cat’ Williams and Rashied Davis, four Chicago Bears alumni. Each student was given a high five, a handshake and a hug – individually recognizing them and letting them know that they were welcomed. Once everyone settled in their seats, Chris Draft opened the conversation by asking the students to share their names, what makes them uniquely special and what they want to be when they grow up.

As the students shared, often calling out the special qualities in one another, the players also opened up about their personal stories and adversities they’ve faced. Many of the students shared big dreams for their future, ones that may seem impossible to some people. The players encouraged them to seek wisdom and advice, and to develop the strength of character to face those challenges. “Adversity is gonna happen,” said Jerry Azumah, “it’s going to test your character of who you are as a person. You have to dig deep and find out exactly who you are and what you can accomplish.”

“This is just another way that we can get down deep into our kids’ lives, and especially into our middle school kids, and really talk to them about making choices at a time in their lives when there are a lot of things going on,” Chris Draft said.

Alex and Henry agree they’ll carry these lessons into the future.

“[I’ve learned] how to see things, like other point of views,” said Alex, “Or how to control yourself, your emotions and how to use them in certain situations or how to react to things.”

Check out a recap of the Spry students’ day with the Bears!