Community Impact Series -- Healthy Lifestyle Choices

New Orleans, La. –
As a nursing student at Louisiana State University, Bryan Buechler will one day care for people with any manner of ailment or injury. Today, however, he's part of a program that teaches young school children how to avoid many of the very same conditions that could require his attention in the future.

"It gives us an opportunity to stop some of these bad habits, if you will, some of these problems before we're identifying them in the emergency room, in the hospital, in the doctor's office," he says. "And it really gives us a chance to change the outcomes of our children in the schools, and at a very early age."

This chance comes through a program called Healthy Lifestyle Choices (HLC), a nonprofit formed 10 years ago in response to evidence of the unhealthy lifestyle choices many local children were making, often at startlingly young ages. It's developed into a school curriculum delivered by teachers and by health care professionals in training, like Bryan, who take part through service learning partnerships. From its start here in New Orleans, the program is now used in 44 states at more than 800 schools and other sites, reaching some 210,000 students nationally.

"Programs like HLC are the only way that a lot of these children are receiving health information," says Donna Betzer, president of Healthy Lifestyle Choices. "Unfortunately, a lot of times they are exposed to anti-social behaviors within their community and they really need a positive reinforcement to counteract that and that is provided through health education."

Through role-play and other interactive lessons, the weekly program teaches students about the power they always have to make healthier decisions for themselves, whether that's through nutrition and exercise, buckling up in the car or learning how to defuse and avoid possible confrontations.

"We teach kids life skills to begin with, about how to set goals, how to make good decisions, and then apply it to those different content areas. But it's all involved," Betzer says. "Knowing your emotions. Knowing a little bit about yourself and self-esteem plays into sometime eating habits and obesity and being unable to express yourself in conflict. Again, you're bottling up your emotions, not communicating well with others and that can lead to other problems. All of these things need to work together.

"Making healthy choices is all an individual choice, and if we don't arm our children with the knowledge to make the better choice, they're not going to."

Most of the lessons are essentially timeless, but the HLC curriculum has changed in response to new issues today's children face, like cyber-bullying and general internet safety in the hyper-wired age. No matter the lesson, though, Bryan says it's stunning just how intuitively students respond to it and how avidly they soak it up.

Absolutely the best part of HLC is that it gives the children concrete examples and ways that they can make positive changes to their lives, just through simple decisions that they encounter on a daily basis," he says. "And in a lot of cases just having that information is very empowering to them."

Visit the Healthy Lifestyle Choices web site to learn more.