By Sally Graham
From “A’HEC of a Break” to “Bust a Move & Improve,” programs offered at UAMS Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), are addressing childhood and adult obesity in exciting ways.
The AHEC program of regional centers was started in 1973 to address the shortage of health care providers in the state. Eight AHECs are spread across the state embracing innovative strategies to reach out to the communities they serve.
“The AHECs serve one of UAMS’ most vital missions – to reach out to rural Arkansas with the best care and medical education opportunities available,” said Mark Mengel, M.D., M.P.H., vice chancellor for Regional Programs and executive director of the AHEC program.
The CATCH program is an evidence-based plan that teaches children the importance of making healthy food choices. (CATCH stands for Coordinated Approach to Child Health and is one of the largest elementary health studies in the country.)
In its fourth year at AHEC South in El Dorado, the program has reached more than 1,600 children in first through third grades. Children learn about the concepts of why one food is better than another. Parents report that their children are now asking for whole wheat bread.
Michael Fitts, Psy.D., AHEC South director, and Rebecka Wendling, community outreach coordinator, are proud of the program’s reach, with more than 88 classes in seven schools in Ouachita, Columbia and Union counties.
Most of the anti-obesity work in the nine counties AHEC Southwest in Texarkana serves is through community education and outreach, said Patrick Evans, AHEC Southwest director. In addition to nutritional guidance and raising awareness about poor food choices, the AHEC has partnered with Arkansas Children’s Hospital to help children who are already obese. Evans reports one of the most insightful discoveries took place at the Texarkana Community Clinic where the AHEC’s licensed clinical social worker sees patients.
“Kelli Cook helped us realize a side of obesity that we were not aware of,” said Evans. “She helped us to see that many women who were obese and had poorly controlled diabetics had experienced sexual trauma. The women seemed to adopt obesity as a protective mechanism from further sexual attacks.”
AHEC West in Fort Smith serves 13 counties. Don Heard, Ed.D., AHEC West director, says the clinic provides patients with health education handouts related to height and weight, calculates patients’ body mass index and offers counseling to obese patients. Interactive video connects a dietitian at UAMS with patients in Fort Smith.
Courtney Cathey, an outpatient dietitian, meets with patients one-on-one. She reviews their typical day of food choices and provides them with meal patterns, portion sizes, and perhaps equally as important, emotional guidance. “I want my patients to know I’ve been there and I know what they’re going through,” said Cathey.
AHEC Northwest in Fayetteville serves six counties. Eleanor Hughes meets with adults and children to provide weight loss and nutritional education. Hughes has been instrumental as a health coach partnering with area schools.
In the Lincoln School district in rural Washington County, Hughes takes part in an after-school program called Girls on the Run, teaching third- through fifth-grade girls about staying active, regular exercise and self-esteem. And in the Fayetteville School District, she works with Apple Seeds Inc. to teach children in elementary schools about healthy eating, growing their own food and eating locally grown food.
North Central Arkansas
AHEC North Central has two offices serving 11 counties and offers a series of efforts to curb obesity. Diabetes support groups have been established in three counties and focus on exercise and weight control. Many patients with diabetes benefit from a clinical education program that helps them manage their condition.
The Batesville office was instrumental in obtaining a “Growing Healthy Community Grant” in 2010 in partnership with the city of Batesville and the Independence County Hometown Wellness Coalition for development of a community garden, walking trails and ensuring water is available in vending machines.
The Mountain Home office, in cooperation with the Baxter County Cooperative Extension office, developed a Mini-Camp Fit and Fun for the children at Cotter Elementary School, highlighting the benefit of physical activity.
“Childhood obesity is not just about numbers on a page. It’s real issues affecting real people,” said Sandra Lusby, director of outreach at AHEC Northeast in Jonesboro, which provides outreach to nine counties.
A Miles for Smiles pilot program focused on the children at the Micro-Society Magnet School. They raised money for the D.D.S. 4 NEA Foundation and received tooth care kits and dental sealants. The AHEC is developing a camp called BMI: Bust a Move & Improve in partnership with the St. Bernards Health and Wellness Institute. It will introduce portion control, healthier eating habits and physical activity.
For combating obesity, the Delta AHEC’s crown jewel is its fitness center. Becky Hall, Ed.D., AHEC director, said boot camps for working mothers are held in Helena and Marianna.
The fitness center hosts programs such as AHEC of a Break for elementary through high school kids during spring break, discussing exercise, CPR, first aid and personal hygiene. The fitness center has become a vehicle for improved communication between the diverse communities of the area.