Auburn nursing’s new outreach program combats poor health trends in state

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If one Auburn University associate professor has her way, a new outreach program aimed at promoting healthy behaviors in children from neighboring Tallapoosa County will be available statewide.

Linda Gibson-Young, an associate professor in Auburn’s School of Nursing, along with fellow nursing faculty Ann Lambert, Tonya Johnson and Margot Fox and pediatrician Dr. Eric Tyler, collaborated to create TigerCHAT — Community Health, Awareness and Training — to establish healthy eating, physical activity and oral care behaviors among school children.

The program is being piloted this semester at Radney Elementary School in Alexander City, home to nearly 500 students in fifth and sixth grade. Gibson-Young and Auburn nursing students visit the school for 10 weeks to present lessons on the heart (nutrition and activity), lungs (staying healthy and sleep health) and brain (dealing with emotions like sadness and anger).

With the support of Alexander City Schools and the Russell Medical Center Foundation, TigerCHAT will be offered at Radney for at least the next four years. Gibson-Young said she intentionally integrated TigerCHAT into the school curriculum in order for it to be sustainable and exist beyond the current partnership.

Gibson-Young said she is currently seeking grant funding to share the program in Chambers County schools. She’s also looking to partner with psychology, kinesiology, nutrition and pharmacy at Auburn, as well as the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, to help adapt the program. Then she wants to bring the program to Lee County schools, potentially partnering with Southern Union State Community College.

The new outreach program aligns with the university’s mission as a land-grant institution to serve the citizens of Alabama.

Gibson-Young found Alexander City Schools to be an ideal partner as its goals for promoting health, nutrition and wellness aligned with the TigerCHAT curriculum. Based on statistics from Russell Medical Center, Alexander City has a higher obesity rate than the national average and Tallapoosa County has higher rates of poverty, diabetes and hypertension than the national average.

“These statistics show a clear need for proactive health interventions,” she said. “TigerCHAT will open the door to improving child health in this community.”

Jack Korte, rehabilitation director at Russell Medical Center, said TigerCHAT “perfectly matched” the strategic objectives of the hospital to address community health.

“It’s exciting to see it in action. Linda Gibson-Young brought this here with this age group in mind. It is well designed and exactly what we were seeking for our community,” he said.

“I would love to see it used throughout the state since Alabama is one of the unhealthiest states in the country.”

Each week classes of Radney students take turns gathering in the school gym where they learn about specific topics in smaller groups led by Auburn nursing students and Radney and Auburn faculty.

For the week on “activity,” students discussed examples of sedentary and physical activity — playing video games versus playing basketball outside. And then practiced different activities that focused on flexibility, endurance or balance — like shoulder stretches, bicep curls, skipping and lunges, to name a few.

Homework for that week was to talk to their families and record how much time they spend on the computer or handheld devices, watching TV or playing video games. Students who turn in the homework each week earn prizes, such as a jump rope for those students who talked with their parents about nutrition.

Caralise Hunt, associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Auburn’s School of Nursing, said TigerCHAT wisely targets children, 10 to 12 years old, because they can make independent decisions at that age about eating behaviors and activities.

While some communities struggle to be healthy because of a lack of resources, such as money to buy a bicycle or access to a park to play, TigerCHAT provided students with the knowledge to make healthy choices no matter their circumstances.

“So much of this discussion is around activities these children can do at home,” said Hunt. “We have to do something to combat the health trends in this area.”

Gibson-Young said the program would not be successful if it told children to stop eating pizza. Instead, it focuses on changing their behaviors and habits so when they eat pizza, they know to be active too.

“I tell our nursing students ‘you are planting a seed. It’s a small seed, but it will grow’,” she said. “The next time these children are at home playing video games or watching TV, they will think about how they can be active.”

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Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.