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Healthy Harlem: Creating a Culture of Wellness

Regina Murdakhayeva was just thirteen when a doctor told her she wouldn’t live past age 25.

Nearly 300 pounds and struggling with pre-diabetes, Murdakhayeva knew she had to save her own life. She and her mother developed a strict diet and exercise regimen and used the limited resources they had to radically change their habits.

As a result, Murdakhayeva lost over 100 pounds. She will turn 28 this year.

Today, Murdakhayeva shares her health journey to support and inspire scholars at Promise Academy® II, where she serves as a Healthy Harlem health coordinator.

“I’ve been through it. I didn’t have the resources. But knowing I could be a part of my students’ health journeys is amazing,” said Murdakhayeva.

Moving anecdotes like Murdakhayeva’s abound across Healthy Harlem. Yet they are not aberrations. In 2018, data analysis firm Mathematica found that middle and high school students affected by overweight or obesity who participated in Healthy Harlem achieved meaningful and sustained overall improvements in physical health and weight status.

The program serves over 9,000 children and 3,000 adults with holistic wellness support. These initiatives can include the Well and Woke health and wellness expo, where community members and families can exercise together; the free farmers markets, stocked with seasonal produce; the hot meals and snacks — Tuscan mac ‘n’ cheese and the fan-favorite mushroom and quinoa “meatloaf”— prepared from scratch in the Promise Academy® kitchens for thousands of children and staff.

But what really makes the program so substantial is the dedication and teamwork of the people behind it.

When program director Nadirah Chestnut joined Healthy Harlem in 2013, she was blown away by the teamwork of the Family Fit program. Chestnut, who started as a Harlem Gems preschool health coordinator, was inspired by the collaboration of Healthy Harlem — it was on part with what she’d witnessed while shadowing health workers in the Dominican Republic as a student.

Family Fit empowers parents and caregivers to make small changes around eating, physical activity and health including topics like reading nutrition labels and setting rules around junk food and screen time.

“By my second year, the program was so popular we had to make a waitlist. We couldn’t fit enough chairs in the room!” said Chestnut. “Even today, I love sitting in on Family Fit sessions and listening to parents discuss their challenges, brainstorm solutions, and support each other along their wellness journeys.”

Today, Chestnut coordinates Healthy Harlem’s initiatives to ensure support at every stage of a child’s life, sometimes even before the child is born.

Healthy Harlem: Early Childhood Education

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Someone's hands preparing fruit and other food on a counter surrounded by ingredients

At HCZ’s Baby College® and Grads program, expecting families and families with toddlers create the foundations of healthy homes. Michelle Polanco, a health coordinator for both programs, establishes the first contact with Healthy Harlem through difficult but essential discussions around postpartum depression, self-care, and prenatal and early infant nutrition.

“I’ve always wanted to explore nutrition with children and education as the foundation,” said Polanco. Her goal is health education that is fun, easy, and accessible — whether that be through how to make fruit appealing to little ones or be creative with resources.

Once children begin preschool, families meet health coordinators at the Harlem Gems pre-schools like Zuri Sumter.

At Harlem Gems North, Sumter teaches preschoolers to identify healthy foods as “GO,” “SLOW,” and “WHOA” and supports community and parent fitness classes. After school, Sumter invites parents to taste-test Healthy Harlem recipes like vegan tomato-basil meatballs or apple ginger-juice.

The work is especially close to her heart, as Sumter herself once one of the 14,000 children educated through Healthy Harlem. She was a high school student at an HCZ Beacon site.

“I want these children to have the foundation of health to fight the diseases that haunt our community,” said Sumter. “At Gems, we are building the foundations for health.”

Healthy Harlem: In the Schools K-12

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A key to a healthy life is a disciplined health regimen. At Promise Academy®, health education is consistent and includes health screenings, daily physical activity, and nutrition education.

Promise Academy® health coordinator Daniel Keehn arranges for scholars to enjoy tennis, ping-pong, and more. To Keehn, an athlete himself, abundant opportunities for physical activity are important, but the way it makes scholars feel is equally important.

“I think exercise is a great way for students to empower themselves,” said Keehn. “Young people can build their confidence and learn about teamwork.”

Like Keehn, Edgar Plummer — also a Promise Academy® health coordinator — believes in the power of discipline to meet health and fitness goals. He knows the mental aspect of fitness firsthand.

After Plummer migrated from Jamaica to America, his exposure to processed food and stress shot up and his immune strength shot down. Plummer developed a strict regimen of healthy eating, physical activity, and meditation.

Both Keehn and Plummer hold scholars to the same high and disciplined expectations they hold themselves. They use data to track scholars’ progress and personalize fitness plans based on everyone’s goals. Both coordinators incorporate meditation into the scope of health for students.

“What I love about Healthy Harlem is how much detail we put into health. The program has broadened horizons on what ‘health’ means,” said Keehn. “Nobody is stigmatized. There is something for everyone.”

Each personalized detail, each moment of care and empathy – that is what makes Healthy Harlem a life-changing program. When you ask a member of the Healthy Harlem staff why they do it — why they answer scholars’ questions at 7:00 a.m., or exercise with them until 7:00 p.m., or prepare trays and trays of snacks, or devote Saturday mornings to distributing produce—each answers the same way:

“A culture of health can save lives.”

Man sits on a stool and smiles at the camera
Man sits on a stool and smiles at the camera

I love showing up every day, not knowing what to expect. The only thing I do know is that I am here to make a difference.

Edgar Plummer

Health Coordinator, Promise Academy® I

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