High school students raise awareness of the importance of vaccines

Shielding Generations, a group of high school students, is on a mission to bridge the gap in health equity for people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Four high school students have been collaborating with Disability Rights Michigan (DRM) to raise awareness about the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, especially among marginalized communities. 
Swetha Srihari
These students, whose group is called Shielding Generations, are on a mission to bridge the gap in health equity for people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Swetha Srihari, Akshitha Narla, Harshitha Balaji, and Anushka Roy, all sophomores at Novi High School in the Detroit suburb of Novi, are leading the charge with a mix of passion, creativity, and community outreach. 

“We saw the impact of COVID and how it affected everyone around us, and that spurred us into action and made us want to raise awareness about immunization and its importance,” Srihari says. “There were so many people who weren't getting vaccinated in the beginning of the pandemic because they had misconceptions about the vaccine. We thought it was so important to educate our community.”

People with disabilities are six times more likely to die from COVID-19, according to the Health Equity Report by DRM. The pandemic also put the spotlight on other health disparities experienced by people with disabilities, such as higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and depression. These inequities existed long before COVID-19 and will persist long after the pandemic if action isn’t taken. The report’s findings emphasize the need for significant systemic changes to advance health equity for Michigan’s disability community. 

Members of Shielding Generations at a covid vaccination event with DRM vaccine advocates Kristen Milefchik and Tamela Phillips.
These advocates from a younger generation have brought new ideas for raising vaccination awareness among their peers, says Kristen Milefchik, DRM vaccine advocate.

“Having Swetha, Akshitha, and Harshitha working alongside the vaccine team here at DRM has been such a pleasure,” Milefchik says. “It’s comforting and inspiring to see young people taking the initiative to be advocates in their own communities. They’ve done such a great job at raising awareness of the importance of immunizations for people of all ages. I expect them to continue to do great things and make a positive impact on their communities as their personal and professional futures develop.”

Part of health student leadership group

The students’ participation in DRM’s vaccine work and efforts to raise awareness of the importance of immunizations are part of their project for HOSA – Future Health Care Professionals, a global group for student leaders pursuing careers in the health care industry. They named their group Shielding Generations.
Akshitha Narla
“We had presentations at two elementary schools and we educated the students about why immunization is important and why they tell their parents that they should get vaccinated,” Narla says. 

The group also created a survey that they sent out to their peers at Novi High School to gauge their knowledge about immunization. The responses showed the students, like many adults, “had a really low understanding of immunization,” says Narla.

Next, the group came up with a plan to share facts about COVID and vaccination on two social media platforms. The group’s Instagram handle, shielding.gen, has more than 200 followers, and their TikTok has more than 1,500, mostly students.

“We started posting content about immunization that made people more understand the importance of immunization and how it would help people in our community,” Narla says.
Harshitha Balaji
Roy says the group also created two fundraising events. “In these fundraising events we were able to raise $677. We donated $500 for Disability Rights Michigan, $100 to UNICEF and $77 to an India-based organization that helps immunize underprivileged children.”

The students all have relatives in India.

“We saw how India was one of the hardest hit countries during COVID-19, which is why we thought it would be good to set up a partnership with an organization to try and help people who are still struggling from the aftereffects of COVID,” says Srihari. 

Balaji lost her grandfather, who lived in India, to COVID-19 in 2021. He was 80.

“There was a lockdown there so we weren't able to go visit them,” she says.

Joining DRM’s efforts

The group was introduced to DRM through the Michigan Vaccine Partners, of which DRM is a member.

“We also found out that they conduct these vaccine drives to help other people get vaccinated,” says Narla. “The people that get vaccinated are people who have disabilities. But they also may like it if they don't have transportation to get vaccinated, or they don't have resources to get vaccinated, or maybe they don't have health insurance. We were really astonished that there are actually organizations that go to different places in Michigan to help people get vaccinated.”

After an initial discussion, the students asked how they could help. They were invited to volunteer at DRM vaccination clinics in Grand Rapids, Jackson and Detroit, which fell during their winter and midwinter breaks so they didn’t miss school.
Anushka Roy
One way the team assisted at the clinics was by making informational boards about the vaccinations, explains Balaji.

“We've also helped senior citizens fill out their forms and answer any of the questions they had,” she says. “Another time, we passed out blankets to people as they waited.”

“We're doing community awareness,” says Roy. “We're bringing awareness to these topics and it's just really cool that we get to partner with so many different things. We also get to learn about new things, and it's just a cool experience for all of us.”

The students have been part of HOSA since their freshman year.

“We are really happy that we got to make an impact in our community and also help other people understand the importance of immunization,” says Narla. “This topic is pretty close to us.”

Shandra Martinez is the lead writer for the Disability Inclusion series. She’s also the managing editor of The Lakeshore and Rapid Growth.

Photos of the students courtesy of Shielding Generations.

Disability Inclusion is a series exploring the state of Michigan’s growing disability community. It is made possible through a partnership with Disability Rights Michigan.
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