Rec-Connect™ empowers Detroit high school student leaders to foster physical activity among peers

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.

Wayne State University's (WSU) Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative has been working in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for over a decade, providing nutrition education and facilitating student-led policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change work to increase healthy eating and healthy food access across Detroit.

"Our primary focus has always been nutrition, healthy food access, and nutrition education," says Dr. Jeanne Barcelona, WSU assistant professor of community health. "Over the last two and a half years, our student leadership teams started voicing concern about the need for physical activity."

To meet that need, Barcelona and her colleagues turned to Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) for funding to deliver Rec-Connect™ at Cass Technical High School, Detroit School of Arts, Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, and Renaissance High School. Like past Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative programs,  Rec-Connect™ is made possible through 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.

"The need for physical activity really became evident as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," Barcelona says. "That's when it was prioritized by the student leaders because everyone was stuck in their homes. There was no access. Everything was shut down. They weren't in school, and they were really feeling like they themselves, as well as their peers, needed some physical activity."

Across the state, Rec-Connect™ boosts involvement in regular physical activity by assessing community resources, hosting physical activity demonstrations, and providing resources to help participants continue physical activity at home. Rec-Connect™ helps people shift how they think about physical activity and works to create a supportive atmosphere  to be active. MFF provides activity leader guides, social marketing materials and messages, training and technical assistance, survey tools, and program evaluation assistance. Due to the pandemic, the Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative team launched Rec-Connect™ in a virtual format.

"What we found particularly helpful and relevant about Rec-Connect™ is that it really is developed to be a sampling of different physical activities. … We've offered cardio kick, kickboxing, high-intensity training, Zumba, and yoga," Barcelona says. "Rec-Connect™ offers various opportunities for kids to be active while sheltering in place, while also giving them this ability to try on different activities to see which ones they really like."

Mickenzy Crowder, Tiffany Jackson, Alexandria Rowe, Janiyah Sherrill, Faith Smith, and Xynese Frazier are among the student leaders helping implement Rec-Connect™ physical activity programming in Detroit schools.
Student leaders from the various high schools involved in Rec-Connect™ for high school students through WSU agree that it's hard to be motivated to be physically active on their own, without accountability from their peers or encouragement from an instructor. Many of the student leaders joined the Rec-Connect™ program when their physical education or health teachers told them about it.

"I joined because I needed volunteer hours," says Rec-Connect™ student leader Tiffany Jackson. "After joining and being a part of that group, I became more active. I wasn't procrastinating or wasting time. I was actually working with other people to make the community better and make the kids at our school more active."

"Around the time that this opportunity came up, I was starting my journey to be more fit," student leader Faith Smith chimes in. "I was like, 'Okay, this is a way to get more exercise.' I actually ended up really enjoying it."

"I wasn't really that active, especially with the pandemic happening," adds student leader Mickenzy Crowder. "I really wanted to become more active. I felt like this is a really good opportunity to do that and to help other students who may be struggling."

Student leader Mickenzy Crowder.
Shamira Tellis, PSE lead for the Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative, facilitates Rec-Connect™. The student leaders agree that her encouragement, as well as their friends' involvement, keeps them coming back. Tellis says she especially appreciates the Rec-Connect™ Activity Leader Guides, hand-outs, and social marketing materials that MFF provides.

"Students outside of the student leadership team mention that it is difficult for them to have motivation to work out daily, even if it's just for 30 minutes," Tellis says. "That's the biggest barrier that I've noticed for students when it comes to being active."

The student leaders are confident about the positive impacts of Rec-Connect™. When pandemic shutdowns shuttered high school sports, Jackson, a volleyball player, says she "got lazy." The Zoom physical activity demonstration sessions got her moving again, even through the summer months.

Student leader Tiffany Jackson.
"It's really gotten me back into the mindset that being physically active is something I need to do," she says. "I think that it helps students get a foundation to work out. They get encouragement and they feel like they can do it on their own. My family has also joined me, and we all work out together. It gave us family time that's also very fun."

The Rec-Connect™ student leaders also pride themselves on being inclusive.

"We welcome everybody and make a point to reach out to those who may feel marginalized," Smith says. "Every student that's ever joined a call or more than one call, I feel like that's a success story. I know some of those who participated did so because of our recruitment. Many said they weren't even active before. They never played a sport, never did anything that was like this. We've built a community. We're always there for each other."

Student leader Faith Smith.
Barcelona looks forward to expanding Rec-Connect™ to include face-to-face demonstrations hosted with community partners – for example, community centers, gyms, and the WSU campus. She sees the program as a means for catalyzing healthy change as more young people make physical activity a permanent part of their lifestyle.

"We had found, before COVID, that collectively we weren't really engaging with our parks or thinking about walkable, friendly environments," Barcelona says. "Now it's our job to help make that happen. I think with Rec-Connect™ we have created an atmosphere where youth want to be active every day and we are showing them how to do it whether they are in school, at home, or in places across our community.”