You may know Tamara Wilson as a Health Advisor and nutritionist at Pack Health, where she’s been helping members achieve their goals for over four years and leading up our Diabetes Prevention program for two. She’s well known for her inspirational quotes, positive approach, and sunny disposition. But what you might not know about Tamara is that she dedicates a good amount of her free time to reducing existing health disparities in her community. As a part of our #MinorityHealthMonth series, we sat down with Tamara to learn more about her experience volunteering with the Birmingham Minority Health Research Center at the University of Alabama Birmingham. In Part 1 of this conversation, she shares insights from her experience conducting nutrition education in Birmingham City schools, and notes the similarities between how she works with students and her coaching methods at Pack Health.
Time to read: 5 minutes
INTERVIEWER: You’ve been with the Minority Health Research Center for some time now! If you want to start and tell me more about your work in that space, that would be marvelous.
TAMARA: Yes! Currently, at the Minority Health Research Center, I serve in two capacities. The first one is as a volunteer nutrition educator, and then I’m also on the Young Professionals Board of the Minority Health Research Center. As a member, of the Young Professionals Board, we are responsible for getting the word out in the community about the Minority Health Research Center.
One of our major projects that we have every year is what we call Harlem in the Ham, an annual fundraiser. All proceeds of that fundraiser go to a program sponsored by the Minority Health Research Center called Healthy Happy Kids.
INTERVIEWER: What is Happy Healthy Kids?
TAMARA: Our purpose with the Healthy Kids program is actually bringing nutrition and exercise back into the school system. The interesting thing about the program is that we’re learning children are not being exposed to adequate nutrition and exercise education.
The rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer are on the rise; and they’re rising in young people. Now, we’re having people graduating high school with Type 2 Diabetes or high rates of obesity. A lot of that stems from lack of nutrition and exercise education.
INTERVIEWER: Are you actually going and working in the schools? If so, what are the kids learning?
TAMARA: Yes, we go to a few different schools. Kids are educated on what eating a healthy plate looks like. They’re exposed to the different food groups: dairy, fruits, veggies and grains. Then, they’re being taught how to make healthy snacks using those different food groups as well. They’re also taught how to be active as well, because kids aren’t that active anymore.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that’s really cool! How are you incorporating the physical activity component?
TAMARA: Yeah, it’s really cool. The kids actually get a soccer ball or a Frisbee or a volleyball and they’re taught how to use them. We also teach the kids ways to use the equipment indoors. Sometimes, kids don’t live in environments that are safe for outside play as well, as well.
INTERVIEWER: For context, how often are you in the schools and what demographic do you most frequently work with?
TAMARA: There are different cohorts and each cohort meets on a weekly basis for set amount of time. We’re targeting elementary schools. Because once you get to middle school and high school, their minds are kind of made up. Not that they aren’t wiling to change, but younger children are more open, more likely to try something different and respond to “different” more objectively.
Our target schools are inner city and we’re hoping to branch out more. However, that requires funding, which is why development is one of the major areas of focus and interest for the Young Professionals Board.
INTERVIEWER: I see – that makes sense. When you are in a school, are you talking to all of the kids in the school?
TAMARA: Within most of the schools, there’s after school program, which is the program that we target. Also, for some programs during the summertime, we’ll go to their camps. This summer, we were at a summer camp and we were one of the classes on the roster.
It’s great because for the first time, a kid has tasted like an avocado or hummus. Usually, they’re like, “What? What is hummus?” They may not know what it is, but they’re learning different ways to prepare meals and snacks with foods that they never have tried before. Some of the foods these kids have never heard of have definitely been eye openers.
INTERVIEWER: That’s so interesting. What do the kids think of these new foods?
TAMARA: Yeah, they really liking the foods that they tried! We know it’s a success when they ask for seconds. Sometimes, they’re a little skeptical, particularly with veggies. Greens are still not number one. However, most of the kids are open to trying something new. Plus, the next time they go grocery shopping with their parents, they can say “Hey, I tried this new thing and it’s really healthy”. That’s our goal, because that is how we start to reduce those disparities. Diet and exercise have been proven to be two areas that could really make a difference in health disparities for minorities.
And of course, the schools love it. The teachers who were in the after school program, they love it. They want some of the materials, you know, recipes on how to make this at home. I think that that’s great. That’s something that they could encourage with their children as well as their own household too.
INTERVIEWER: That’s really awesome. What parallels do you see between the health education approach in schools and what you do at Pack Health?
TAMARA: I think as we’re progressing to be more evidence-based in the field of health education, there is an emphasis on motivational interviewing. That’s a main method here at Pack Health. There are definitely ways in which healthcare is different from health education. In a primary care setting, you’re there to learn from the expert. Health education has really evolved: now we’re asking the right questions and developing intentional programs that address the needs of individuals – so Pack Health and our group at the Minority Health Research Center are both in that same boat.
Pack Health takes the extra step of truly meeting the individual where they’re at with our one-on-one approach. The members are letting us know what they want to work on; we are just asking the opening questions to get them there. Therefore, in this situation, the member is the expert. I’m [as a Health Advisor] just here to learn from you. I’m here to find out what’s important to you and how we’re going to get to the end result of your health goals. What is preventing you from being successful? Once we find out what’s preventing you from overcoming those barriers, then we can actually get to the root of what’s going on. Now, I can take a more active approach and really help you become the best version of you that you could possibly be.
We’ll continue this conversation next week, talking more about Tamara’s work within the Minority Health Research enter and her views on how we can work to reduce health disparities, specifically in the Southern region. In the mean time, check out our latest white paper to learn more about health disparities in the Deep South. Also, visit the Minority Health Research Program website to learn more about the program and how to get involved.