The New River Valley Region, nestled in the foothills and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is in the mid-Appalachian Region. It includes Montgomery, Pulaski, Floyd and Giles counties. The cities of Blacksburg (home of Virginia Tech), Christiansburg, and Radford are also in the New River Valley. The 2013 County Health Rankings show a number of health behaviors, social, and economic factors that contribute to the region’s poor health. Significant adult smoking and alcohol use, as well as high rates of teen births and adult obesity plague the community. The community is also grappling with serious addiction and substance abuse problems.
In 2011, the New River Valley Planning District was selected as a Roadmaps to Health Community Grantee supporting an effort with a dual focus of increasing positive family and social connectedness while breaking down cycles of unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors. The project engaged students by arming youth ambassadors with digital media and storytelling skills so they could develop an ad campaign to promote healthy living and share their own personal stories.
Project Director Holly Lesko says that the project has been successful in developing a group of informed students who have showcased the challenges and triumphs of their community and in the process have become more engaged citizens. Lesko says the nine students involved in the program are more empowered and fully vested in the health, wellbeing, and future of their community. She says, “they have ideas to offer that are great and by giving them a venue and a bully pulpit, it has helped the whole community.”
The cascading effects of the youth engagement are significant as well. According to Lesko the efforts of the students also served as a call to action to local government officials. “Government officials hear a lot about data and statistics, but when they see the student videos they realize our kids want something better,” explained Lesko.
While project leaders initially wanted students to ask their grandparents about the community’s past, and highlight the differences contributing to poorer health and wellbeing, Lesko was surprised when the students were more interested in focusing on contemporary issues. The students were interested in talking about everything from bullying to methamphetamines. A platform to tell the stories that they connected to has been important to the project’s success. Lesko believes having a culturally relevant voice from within a community is critical and these kids found the stories that were important to them and gave them a voice.
The effort has had a profound impact on the students. In a community that lacks a college going culture and many deal with intergenerational poverty, all nine students who participated the initiative are looking to further their education. Many will be the first in their families to attend college. As a result of this project, students feel that they have a valuable voice and contribution to give their community. One student even expressed a desire to continue to hone her storytelling skills and focus on a career as a health journalist.