Student journalists tackle community health issues

Rower Esther Lofgren (left), who struck Olympic gold at the London Games, and student journalist Julia Olszewski meet and compliment each other on their achievements. More than 225 students participate in the Healthy NewsWorks program.

CNN, NPR, and CBS have grilled Scott Charles about the youth violence-prevention program he cofounded at Temple University Hospital.

A group of middle-school journalists? No problem.

Then the team of reporters from Healthy NewsWorks asked Charles, a trauma outreach coordinator at Temple, how he feels when he must counsel victims of the gun violence his program warns young people about.

"I thought, 'Are you kids trying to make me cry?' " said Charles, 47, cofounder of the Cradle to Grave initiative.

Like seasoned journalists, reporters Tamir Brooks, Mark Carter, Alyse Nichols, and Isaiah Outlaw had prepared for the interview, one of 14 featured in a new book the students have coauthored, Leading Healthy Change in Our Communities 2014.

The book is the third in a series for Healthy NewsWorks, a student media initiative that uses journalism to educate young people about health issues and healthy lifestyles.

"Everyone has a role to play in making the community a healthier place," said Marian Uhlman, cofounder and director of Healthy NewsWorks. "Our reporters are making a difference by writing and reporting."

More than 225 students ages 8 to 14 participate in the program, in which they produce articles about health-related topics for school newspapers, a website, and a communitywide publication.

The student journalists, who attend schools in Montgomery and Delaware Counties and Philadelphia, write and draw illustrations for stories about subjects that include nutrition, heart health, prescription-drug safety, and exercise.

For the last three years, the students have written a book under the guidance of a team led by Uhlman, a former Inquirer reporter. is a project media partner.

The Leading Health Change books feature profiles of leaders whose work helps make communities healthier and safer. About 76 student journalists helped produce the book, which will be available in libraries, pediatric practices, and schools. A teacher resource guide is also available.

In addition to Charles, this year's subjects include Charles' colleague Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon and cofounder of Cradle to Grave; chef Marc Vetri, whose Vetri Foundation promotes healthy lifestyles for youth; and Arthur Evans, commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services.

The student journalists asked Evans about the department's embrace of a resilience approach that teaches youths to be stronger and resilient, able to bounce back from their struggles and remain healthy.

Patricia DeRusso, director of the Healthy Weight Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, talked with the students about the importance of nutrition and exercise. Raina Merchant, director of the Social Media Lab at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, discussed using digital tools to share and study health information.

On May 20, the students signed copies of their book during a book launch at the Merion Tribute House.

Brooks, 13, a seventh grader at the Hope Partnership for Education school in Philadelphia, said he learned about the wisdom of picking the right friends in his interview with Charles and Goldberg.

The wrong friends, Brooks said, "may get you into a situation where your life will be in danger."

Student journalists Joshua Charles (no relation to Scott Charles) and Ummayh Siddiqua, fifth graders at Highland Park Elementary School in Upper Darby, interviewed Lt. James Reif of the township Police Department. James, founder of a youth mentorship program, chatted about making the right decisions to stay safe and healthy.

"Being healthy is not just your body. It's how you feel. It's what you do," said Ummayh, 11. "If you do a bad thing, you feel guilty, and it affects your brain and body."

Joshua, 11, takes his role as a disseminator of health information seriously, though he says he's not "a grown-up."

"The book isn't a New York Times bestseller," he said. "But to know people can read it, that's pretty awesome." 610-313-8211