Dearborn nonprofit forges relationships to inspire healthy living

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Dearborn-based Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (LAHC) has honed the art of bringing community residents and organizations together while ensuring that the unique perspectives of Arab Americans, refugees, and immigrants have a seat at the table during the decision-making processes.

"Having people who represent the community on our SNAP-Ed team is really crucial to making sure these perspectives are included in our outreach efforts," says Kelly Citron, LAHC Healthy Living program manager. "For example, Linda Bazzi, our program coordinator and community outreach liaison is from the area and lives in the community. She is great at connecting with other residents and local immigrants and refugees so that their thoughts and opinions are included. They feel comfortable talking to Linda and giving their honest feedback."

LAHC's programs are made possible in part through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

"It's been good to learn from the MFF staff about best practices and tips for community engagement and collaboration," Bazzi says. "Without either of those two things, no effort is going to be successful."

WhatsApp lets folks know what's up

LAHC uses the messaging platform WhatsApp as a way to develop meaningful connections with its SNAP-Ed program participants. With the app, they can share tips on where and how to access healthy, nutritious food and physical activity opportunities and gather feedback.

"As community members join our classes, they're voluntarily added to our WhatsApp group," Citron says. "We have separate WhatsApp groups for different schools, as well as for different areas of focus. So, if a specific group wants to be updated on all of our physical activity opportunities, we are able to send out a WhatsApp group chat about an upcoming session that we're holding virtually. Or, if the activity is on site at one of our schools, we connect with the WhatsApp group from that school."

In addition to event information and registration links, people also receive reminders, abbreviated versions of LAHC's social media posts, bilingual recipes, and nutrition tips. To prevent participants from being overwhelmed with messages, LAHC has disabled the chat-back function for most of the groups, encouraging participants to contact LAHC staff with questions instead.

"We have a group of 10 participants who were in a class and all of their kids go to the same school," Bazzi says. "They didn't necessarily know each other before but have become such good friends that they want to be able to chat with each other. We've noticed that our classes are bringing people together who may not have known each other before. Through the connection they’ve made in our classes and through WhatsApp, they keep in touch as a group once our eight weeks is up."

Creating social networks that extend beyond their SNAP-Ed programming has been significant for mothers, especially over the last few years with the pandemic limiting social interactions. 

Through SNAP-Ed, LAHC has found a variety of ways to successfully respond to their community's unique needs. For example, recipes used in LAHC's cooking classes use halal ingredients to ensure they meet Islamic dietary guidelines. Because of SNAP-Ed work done in collaboration with Dearborn Public Schools, the district adopted a policy so that community organizations can use school facilities for programming. Now, LAHC can offer women-only fitness classes in safe spaces where Muslim women wearing hijabs feel comfortable to exercise together.

Women at an LAHC exercise class.
"We worked really hard to build trust in our community and to make people feel comfortable at our events and with our staff," Bazzi says. "We were able to facilitate the space for women-only fitness opportunities at school or at LAHC where the women feel comfortable to exercise, get personalized fitness instruction, and have fun doing it in a safe space."
A family enjoys a StoryWalk®.
LAHC also collaborated with Healthy Dearborn, Beaumont Hospital, and Dearborn Public Schools' Communities In Schools of Michigan (CIS) affiliate to bring StoryWalk® exhibits to the community in four locations across Dearborn. StoryWalk® is a movement and literacy building initiative that features children's books with healthy messages. Book pages reproduced on outdoor signage are then placed along walking routes. It is an innovative way for families to enjoy reading and being active together.

"My elementary principal and I were talking about bringing StoryWalk® to the school," says Amal Qayed, Salina Elementary's CIS community liaison. "Then, one day, I was walking down the hall and I bumped into Linda Bazzi, my best friend at LAHC. She asked me, 'What do you think about a StoryWalk®?’”

That synergy helped them make the decision to move forward with the project.

Books were selected for each location and purchased with funding from Beaumont Health Foundation: "Duck on a Bike" by David Shannon, "Growing Vegetable Soup" by Lois Ehlert, and "The Big Dance" by Aoife Greenham. Then, Qayed suggested "Ameer's Beautiful Home" by Nadeen Saad, Nesreen Saad, and Julia Almasarweh. With permission from the authors, LAHC provided Arabic translation for the book to be displayed in both English and Arabic. The community Storywalk®, which originated at Salina Elementary, is one of a few bilingual Storywalks® in the state, as it was important to reflect the community in which it was featured.

The ribbon cutting for a StoryWalk® exhibit organized by Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities and other partners.
"This book speaks really loud to our community," Qayed says. "A little boy grows a plant to help make the air better. Salina Elementary is in an industrial area. We have factories all around us, so you can imagine the pollution. We're trying to bring as much greenery to our school as possible to address that pollution. I felt very excited to be able to use that book in particular."

Healthy Streets, healthier residents

Another LAHC SNAP-Ed initiative involves collaborating with the Healthy Dearborn coalition on its Dearborn Healthy Streets initiative. Healthy Streets aims to increase physical activity along the streets by putting up signage and placing barrels in select areas to encourage motorists to slow down. Through this initiative, LAHC makes it easier for people to practice the healthy behaviors LAHC teaches them in direct education classes.

Signs used in the Dearborn Healthy Streets initiative.
Healthy Streets has made the community more walkable and bikeable, which not only addresses transportation needs but also provides opportunities for physical activity. LAHC staff serve as block captains, which helps the organization to better understand and respond to its community's needs.

"Every few weeks, we go down to the actual streets, walk the whole path, straighten out the barrels, and make sure the signs are facing the right direction," says Bazzi. "Residents talk to us. I've gotten lots of thank-yous, answered questions, and shared the website with them so they can learn more. We've had a really good response."

LAHC also runs SNAP-Ed direct education programs in five other Dearborn public schools serving preschoolers, fifth graders, and students’ families. In all of its work, LAHC puts cultural responsiveness at the forefront.

"Whenever we're running a program or connecting with Healthy Dearborn to work on initiatives, we always have our diverse, multicultural families that make up our community in mind," Citron says. "We make sure that everyone is represented, that they're able to participate and take advantage of whatever it is we're offering."

Through their SNAP-Ed work, LAHC is meeting their community where they are at by building relationships that connects residents to resources and education that inspire heathy living.
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