The Madonna Heights sanctuary mosaic

The Madonna Heights NY State Children’s Environmental Health Centers collaboration uses a positive-youth development model to promote resilience among adolescent girls confronting multiple types of trauma in their lives.

Under the guidance of leaders from Long Island University, Stony Brook University and Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, we provide highly interactive learning sessions where the girls develop skills in communication and leadership towards creating solutions for the environmental health problems they prioritize in their world.  Experiential, interactive, and mentorship-based learning engagements culminate with student-developed projects in May and December.  Student projects have included environmental health posters, slide shows, written and audio presentations, and a dance performance that emphasized self-esteem and kinesthetic learning.  Program evaluations assess self-perceived leadership qualities.

Our NYSCHECK team is dedicated to using community-based and evidence-based methods for serving vulnerable populations in Long Island and across the state. The strength of our work depends on the strength of our partnerships.  For example, mentors from diverse fields (including, but not limited to medicine, public health and social work) bring rich experiences to share with the girls. Mentors receive regular training and feedback from the leadership team.  Mentors come from regional universities, hospital systems, and nonprofits.

Our youth have several different interests when it comes to the environment. With the girls at Madonna Heights, some of the topics they are interested in are personal care products, endangered species, pollution, women’s health, and many more. 

Our program has been formulated to include both direct learning and mentoring sessions. The direct learning sessions involve discussion with the group on various topics of their interest. These sessions typically involve brief lectures with plenty of time for activity and engagement.Topics addressed in the curriculum include breast cancer prevention subjects that are pertinent to youth including things like personal care products and food; according to EWG average use exposes the typical individual to 120 different chemicals each day, and especially high for girls at 168 who tend to use more products during a vulnerable time in their lives.

The mentoring sessions allow time for students and mentors to get to know one another and get in the weeds on various topics. Mentors are comprised of pediatric residents, medical students, social work students, community advocates, and more. This one on one time enables the girls to build relationships and help them focus on topics of their interest by working on individualized projects.

Over the past 5 years we have successfully run this program at the Madonna Heights School in Dix Hills a lockdown facility for at-risk girls and we have witnessed numerous girls developed an interest and confidence understanding that their personal behavior and lifestyle choices may affect their long term health. For example, they put together a successful educational campaign that got the institution to remove styrofoam from the cafeteria (see results below) and install a water filtration system. 

Working with at-risk youth can be challenging, but the rewards are amazing. Seeing the faces of girls who took the time to work on their projects and share their thoughts is inspiring. Our impact travels with them each day from the classroom to their homes where they carry messages with them.

General Framework for Didactic Lessons

Mission: Develop and expand the girls’ sense that they can take control of things in their environment that they care about but may feel is out of their capacity to change.

  1. Ice breaker/Assessment (if necessary): 10 minutes
  2. Speaker : 5-7 minutes
    • Week 1: introducing environment and health and identifying what they care about
    • Week 2-4: Discuss topic of interest
    • Week 5-6: Mentorship (host longer sessions if doing fewer, shorter if more)
    • Week 7: presentations

*Can be adjusted based on number of weeks of engagement

  1. Activity: 20 minutes
    • Activity based on the topic discussed. 
      1. Examples include:
        1. Personal care products: making face masks
        2. Environmental conservation: engaging with animals, drawing endangered animals
        3. Any: trivia competition
  2. Reflection: 5-7 minutes
    • Emphasize importance and discuss what they can do
      1. What can they do for themselves to address this issue?
      2. What can they do for their community to address this issue?
      3. What is being done already?
  3. After session: Debrief

Here is a story as told by of one of the participants of our program who changed the system by getting polystyrene trays replaced with paper in her school cafeteria.