My Journey Pursuing Solutions to Child Health

Kelly with a group of children in DC after completing the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's curriculum on nutrition and physical activity.

Kelly with a group of children in DC after completing the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s curriculum on nutrition and physical activity.

By Kelly Sheppard

Ms. Sheppard is pursuing a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, NC.  She graduated from Washington and Lee in 2008 with a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies.

It was June 2010 when I found myself sitting on a porch in Kannapolis, NC while the 5,222nd train of the day rolled by on the tracks only a few feet from my new summer home. Ok, maybe there weren’t that many trains, but in the few hours I’d been in that town, it felt like at least that many had gone by. The only thing I could think was, “What have I done?” Only 24 hours earlier, I had been living in a high-rise apartment in Arlington, VA. I had spent two years taking advantage of everything Washington, DC had to offer working for a non-profit anti-obesity group, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, in a post-graduate program associated with Washington and Lee’s Shepherd poverty studies program. I had a great job working with kids on nutrition and physical activity in after-school programs across the city. What was I doing in this tiny former mill town of Kannapolis, NC? What had I done? Luckily, I had some experience asking myself that very question.

I didn’t think a lot about why I was interested in the Volunteer Venture program at W&L. It was one of the many pamphlets we received with information leading into our first year of college. I decided to sign up and was placed in the group going to War, a small, unincorporated town in the southernmost county of West Virginia. The Big Creek People in Action (BCPIA) center looked straight out of a horror film (complete with a cage in the one stairwell used for a haunted house on Halloween). The bunks were built slightly incorrectly by previous volunteers. Lying in bed the first night too scared to go to sleep and with the wooden bottom of the top bunk less than an inch from my face, I thought for the first time “What have I done?” I wasn’t sure why I was there or what the point of the trip was. Over the next several days, we talked with high school kids about their future, fixed houses that had been damaged in storms, and helped BCPIA with many services, like daycare and reading programs for kids. The center director told me that it was important to her that they have good food at the center because it was the only meal many of the kids would get that day. That stuck with me because I didn’t know how these kids were supposed to build their town or go explore the world if they had only one meal a day. Despite the center’s attempts at securing good food, it was also clear they often had to offer less than fully nutritious options.

My Volunteer Venture trip led me to the Shepherd Program classes and to a class on child development, a topic that has subsequently become central to my thinking and work. Those courses made me think about the importance of a good early start for a child and what we can do to support it. We spend a lot of time fixing problems that we can and should be preventing instead. For one class, I worked helping the Rockbridge County Relief Association food bank improve donations and target healthy products for their clients. We provided ideas such as having bags of foods specifically designed for pregnant or nursing women. Our ideas helped them move to a larger space that could support refrigerators and more and better food options. I was amazed that they had been a main source of food for a large portion of the population without any real way to refrigerate donations. I realized we had a long way to go in supporting healthy eating and development.

My Shepherd summer internship took me to Total Action Against Poverty (TAP) in Roanoke, VA. The goal of the organization is as the name implies: do everything the community needs to lift people out of poverty. I helped with two important programs: the GED certificate program and starting a new YouthBuild site. Both programs focused on learning and skills that would help people get jobs. I knew that employment was a complex and elusive issue for reducing poverty. A mixture of people struggled with unemployment because of economic factors outside their control and some factors seeming within their control, like professional behavior and a work ethic. TAP’s graduate equivalency degree (GED), certificate programs, and the national YouthBuild program had excellent success rates in helping people move into stable careers. I was struck by how the staff often helped most by doing things that weren’t part of their job description. Hazel, one of the GED instructors, visited clients she deemed at risk of falling back into old, problematic habits and found them new places to live and got them into assistance programs, often by dragging them somewhat unwillingly through the process. Her actual job was to teach the GED curriculum and get people to pass the test so they could get their GED. She was a less-than-5-foot-tall force of nature who once told me that it will never be about what you know but what you can do to solve your problems. I spent a lot of time in the YouthBuild program arguing with city representatives about the dropout “problem” that they refused to fully acknowledge. YouthBuild was exactly the kind of program that could help kids who had fallen through the cracks, and yet due to the stigma of having dropouts, the city tried clever ways to claim those kids were anything but dropouts: “they left after the second semester so they couldn’t be called dropouts yet, maybe they will come back next year!?!” So while we waited for those 10th graders they hadn’t seen for three months to magically reappear for their junior year, I had another existential “What have I done?” moment. What exactly have I done to help in any of these situations? I had learned a lot, but I had only minimally begun to address the issues I encountered.

Kelly testing the near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) equipment used to measure blood oxygenation in the brain while participants complete testing of cognitive skills like working memory and planning.

Kelly testing the near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) equipment used to measure blood oxygenation in the brain while participants complete testing of cognitive skills like working memory and planning.

I still did not know where to begin. The problems seemed numerous and too challenging, but I had learned that getting started is necessary and likely leads to results. My post-graduate Elrod Fellowship with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) was a way to get started again. Two days into my new job, I found myself working with an early version of the nutrition and physical activity curriculum we were developing. I stood excitedly in front of a group of disenfranchised and disinterested “at-risk” children in DC asking them to play jeopardy with nutrition and physical activity as themes. Do you know what the main food groups are? According to one nice boy, they are, “$#@* you”. How could I not have known that? After a very challenging session, I dejectedly asked again: “What have I done?”, but this time I also thought more clearly about what I could do to help. Over my two years with AHG, I learned that we do not do well teaching children about nutrition or physical activity. We don’t incorporate these topics into their lives, and we still expect them to become healthy adults. Our problems come from multiple angles. We do not know enough about appropriate nutrition to provide accurate recommendations. Our programs aren’t designed for the developmental level of the children. Our policies often hinder appropriate nutrition and physical activity due to a lack of understanding of what promotes positive health behaviors.

I decided that I wanted to help with one piece of that puzzle and study nutrition and child development so that I could provide answers to some of these questions. I then my found my current advisor at the Nutrition Research Institute the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). She combines studying nutrition and brain and cognitive development. When she invited me for an interview, I discovered that her “unique lab” isn’t in Chapel Hill but in Kannapolis, NC, 30 minutes outside Charlotte. This former mill town died when manufacturing moved overseas. Although built around a textile mill, Kannapolis attracted Dole Foods, which also left town. Many years after the mill had remained empty, David H. Murdock, the former head of Dole Foods, decided that Kannapolis would be an excellent location for his newest endeavor: a place to collaborate across disciplines to study nutrition and human health. Mr. Murdock felt that people often contracted diseases and died young because of poor nutrition. The campus Mr. Murdock started in Kannapolis now brings together eight universities and eight companies, with more to come, to address complex problems in agriculture, food science, biochemistry, nutrition, and human health. Mr. Murdock also built a campus for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to train people for the technical jobs required to work on the campus. His vision has helped rebuild the town.

I have worked for the “resident psychologist” on the research campus for five years. We study nutrition and brain and cognitive development in infants, toddlers, children, and older adults. I was among the first students to set foot in the summer housing. I’ve learned a lot about child development and nutrition that I use, but I may have learned more watching the town rebuild. The campus has brought a lot of benefits to the community, including training programs for skills that are needed all over the country in computer programming, biochemistry, and phlebotomy. Our lab works with the local high school using a 3D printer to design props used with infants and toddlers in research. The high school engineering class learns how to use the 3D printer software and designs props for us. They see their inventions in action in research, with some of their designs even going oversees for research in Gambia. These collaborations were difficult to build but rewarding to maintain. The research we do is more applicable to human health problems because of the community collaboration. The research campus hosts festivals, running events, and school field trip rotations. I devote equal time to learning about the brain, metabolism, and child development and attending recruiting events, helping out local non-profits, and getting involved in the local community. It’s all a part of what I do, even if most people who think about “getting a Ph.D.” would never have considered all of these pieces.

My unique background facilitated acceptance by my current graduate program and helped me succeed in my research. I understood why we needed to go into the community to recruit and to bring our research idea to the people it most affected. That had always been part of my work with AHG, with TAP, and starting with my time in War, WV. I have tried to engage people with needs in order to understand their needs, and I have learned that when I ask “What have I done?” I am on the right track. In asking that question I am pushing myself, and I am focused on making a real difference. I hope college students encounter experiences and courses that make them ask that question. If we do not put ourselves in challenging situations out of our comfort zone, we probably are not making progress to find solutions. Sometimes academic study encourages disengaged observations, but my poverty studies education encouraged engaged observations in and out of the classroom. To understand the problem well, we need to know, of course, what children should be eating at certain stages in their development, but if we are engaged we also realize that they need access to those foods. Sure people need to exercise regularly and eat their vegetables, but we also need to help remove the barriers to these healthy behaviors. Of course, young people need to pass their GED tests, but we all need to understand the role the GED can play in removing other barriers to success.

The Shepherd Program for poverty studies gave me ample opportunities to learn the value of asking: “What have I done?” My internship and post-graduate fellowship engendered doubts that prompted that question many times. My goal is to continue to blend my research into the community, prompting this recurring question, which no longer seems so awkward but reassures me that I am on the right path. I am sure that I will be asking this question throughout my career, and I hope poverty study students will continue to ask their version of “What have I done?” in their professional and civic lives.


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