The ARK in Jackson: Bringing More Than Just Fitness

The ARK in Jackson: Bringing More Than Just Fitness

Exercise is a crucial part of the fight against obesity in Mississippi. But for many, finding a place to exercise is difficult. Challenges finding places to exercise in one’s community is a clear example of a social determinant of health.

Creating a healthy space is one of many reasons why New Horizon Church in Jackson opened The Ark in October. The Ark is in the vein of YMCA: more than just a gym, it’s a place for empowering people through sports and fitness. The Ark also offers a broad spectrum of education about more topics than just health. To help their community get healthy, the Ark provides multiple basketball courts, a climbing wall, spaces for weight training, cardio equipment, and meeting rooms.

Training equipment at The Arc

As we discussed in early November, exercise is vital not just for preventing diabetes and obesity, but for managing them as well. It also has myriad benefits for other aspects of health, including balance, mobility, and mental health.

But the Ark is about more than just exercise. “Come here and dream again,” is what Dr. Adrianne L. Swinney, Executive Director, said of The Ark. “We want it to be inspiring. Visions do matter.”

Art by Derek Perkins in one of the public spaces at The Ark

Seven years ago, the Ark was a shuttered Sams warehouse that the local community had been trying to find a use for.

As part of that community, New Horizon Ministries was in a good position to help turn the old warehouse into something new and vibrant. Representative Ronnie Crudup, Jr., the Executive Director of New Horizon Ministries, worked with the ministry and the local community so that the ministry could purchase the warehouse, and transform it into the Ark.

The space and the staff currently focus on youth basketball, with three basketball courts and three basketball development specialists under the guidance of Coach Charles Lewis. The coaching team teaches children and keeps them active, instilling values and habits that can help them be healthier and happier for life. They also manage a community basketball league for youth and adults.

Basketball courts at The Ark

We asked Dr. Swinney what she would say to any community that wanted to achieve something similar in their neighborhood. “Start with a vision. Write it down, research it, identify those who want to help make it happen by investing in the vision, and find a location. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get started. We started with one basketball court.” Dr. Swinney said.

And now there are three, with plans for expansion. They aim to provide more space, more events, and new facilities for different sports that kids might not otherwise be exposed to.

We’re proud to spotlight The Ark as an example of how community organizations can create better health in our state. Be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates on their work!

Have a success story of your own? Send it to us! Contact us to get started.

3 Ways to Build a Healthier Mississippi

3 Ways to Build a Healthier Mississippi

UProot was developed to spark new ideas and opportunities to improve our state’s health. Read on for ways to connect to the great work happening to improve our state’s health. 

Read the State Health Improvement Plan

Developed using feedback from more than 19,000 residents, public health professionals, and community partners across the state, the State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) is a great place to start when looking to build a healthier state. 

It breaks down the cause and prevalence of Mississippi’s most pressing health issues, and contains actionable next steps employers, residents, educators, health-care professionals, faith-based organizations, and public health professionals can use to put the plan into action. 

Here’s an example for community residents: 

  1. Notice what chronic diseases (obesity, for example) are impacting your town or community. 
  2. Check the SHIP for tips on how to improve this health issue. In this example, you could help lower obesity rates by improving food access (volunteering at a food pantry, donating to organizations that provide food to those who are low-income or on disability, or starting a neighborhood food drive or community garden). 
  3. Spread the word. Get more people involved in improving this issue to help grow more solutions for a healthier Mississippi. 

Keep in mind that simply sharing, supporting, and lifting up healthy behaviors for friends and family members can have a big positive impact on our state’s health as well! Check out our resource directory to learn more about chronic diseases in your area and connect to free health management classes to boost wellness.

Join an UProot Work Group

For organizations looking to make a difference, joining one of UProot’s work groups is a great first step. Work groups meet on a monthly basis to track progress and develop new strategies for improving our state’s health. Priorities are based on the SHIP and are represented in the following focus areas: 

Social Determinants of Health contribute to health disparities across the state, and can have a major impact on the prevalence of chronic diseases. By joining in this work, your organization can take action to improve the environmental conditions of Mississippians, including people of color, tribal members, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Click here for a breakdown of this priority.

There’s also work being done specifically to lower obesity rates that your organization can take part in. Since obesity is a root cause for most chronic illnesses, it is a very important issue to address at both local and state levels. Improving obesity rates alone could save Mississippi over $13 billion annually in unnecessary health care costs. 

With three specific focus areas, we’re able to develop a more holistic approach to building better behaviors and lowering obesity rates. Click here to learn more about this priority and its focus areas.

See a workgroup that seems like the perfect fit for your organization? Click here to join! 

Share the Wins

Whether you’re a community organization or community leader, resident or public health advocate, always share the wins! Send us the health projects or events happening in your area, and we’ll amplify them to help spread the word and inspire others to grow a healthier Mississippi. 
If you already have a story ready to share with us, click here to send it to us!

How the Good Samaritan Center is Growing New Possibilities for Mississippi

How the Good Samaritan Center is Growing New Possibilities for Mississippi

Our 2022 State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) identifies food insecurity as one of Mississippi’s most pressing issues and a primary cause for high obesity rates in the state. However, programs like the community gardens at The Good Samaritan Center help local residents live healthier lives. The garden, 2,000 square feet of urban greenery, serves as an example of how transformative community effort can be. 

Known locally as “Good Sam,” The Good Samaritan Center has provided food assistance, clothing, and community support services to the Jackson-Metro area for over 40 years. Good Sam’s mission to create a “network of helping hands” is most evident in Midtown, a central neighborhood in the city of Jackson, where local residents and organizations work together to ensure care resources reach the people who need them most. 

We spoke with Sarah Gayden Hammond, Director of Volunteers at Good Sam, and volunteers Mary Hauk and Jeannette Morgan about the gardening program and how it’s making an impact. 

What inspired the Good Samaritan Center to start this program?

Hammond: As I understand it, in 2014, Kathy Clem, the CEO of the Good Samaritan Center, wrote a grant and Whole Foods fulfilled it. The original intention behind the grant was to grow produce in our garden that would supplement our pantry. There would also be a moveable kitchen and cooking component, but that component didn’t get funded. There is still the possibility of hosting a cooking experience for clients and volunteers, though, if we find the right partnership. 

Hauk: Like Sarah said, the original grant focus was not very doable in the space that we had available. So from there the garden evolved to be a space for teaching and urban greening. Whatever we harvest does go into our pantry and also goes out to families in Midtown, like our seniors at Golden Key. 

Were any other partners involved in getting this program started?

Hammond: Whole Foods was very involved. And also one of our long-term partners in the garden is Matt Casteel, who operates his own small business, Wurmworks, which is also in Midtown. He builds worm boxes, makes organic produce, and donates vermicompost to our garden. Actually, the vegetables that were planted this season were planted with Casteel’s vermicompost. We also worked with Mississippi Cold Brew coffee and used coffee grinds that they had donated in the back bed. That was really wonderful, and they helped us plant herbs.

What groups volunteer at the garden? 

Hammond: Whenever possible, we try to bring our regular volunteers into the garden. But outside of our volunteers, we have different groups come in and spend time in the garden. We’ve planted sunflowers with Reverend Annie Elliott’s class from St. Andrew’s. St. Richards brought their second graders, and it was great seeing them. We had a youth group from UMMC Madison stop by yesterday and help us fix a bed. They also helped us tie up our tomatoes after they’d been blown down after the storm. We also have volunteers, like the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, come every Friday. So, we have many different groups volunteer and help out at the garden. 

Photo of college volunteers
Pictured above: Volunteer students from Hinds, JSU, Millsaps, Holmes and Tougaloo

How do kids react once they’ve successfully grown produce? Has a participant ever shared what they’ve learned from the process?

Hauk: We had a group last year, from one of the local churches. And they had a whole bunch of little kids, which is always fun. I took them around on a little tour of the garden and I’m explaining what’s growing and where things are. And then 30 or 40 minutes later, a couple other kids came outside and I heard the first kids saying, ‘let me take you on a tour of the garden’.

And those kids took them around the garden and explained here’s this and here’s that and here’s the strawberry. And about 20 minutes later, more kids came out, and the second group of kids took them on a tour of the garden. So they’re finding that they’re not necessarily seeing the work through their own arc of time, but they’re seeing it through someone else’s arc.

Hammond: We use social media to make those connections. So recently the sweet tomatoes that the Millsaps Chi Os planted have borne fruit. And then we had some yellow pear tomatoes that JSU students planted go into our pantry. I was able to name the students who planted those back in March and make a Facebook post about it. In that way, they’re able to see progress in the garden and see how their effort is making a difference.

Are there any standout moments? 

Morgan: There was a young woman in one of the volunteer groups that wanted to be a cook, and she was planning to go to culinary school, but she had never actually grown her own herbs. She knew that as a potential chef, though, that she would need to have that knowledge. 

So she was asking questions about growing herbs and was really enjoying planting and learning about soil composition and what all was needed, especially in a container garden. There was also another time, we came across kids who were actually from farms and knew about growing, but it was a different experience using a planter and navigating a smaller garden.

Pictured above: 6th graders from St. Andrews plant sunflowers in a newly created bed.

The State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) aims to reduce food insecurity by 10% in the next five years by increasing food access and eliminating food deserts across the state. How does this program help with that effort?

Hammond: We’ve got tomatoes and peppers and okra. We have an eggplant coming along. It’s a whole rainbow of local sustainable produce! And it’s enough to help supplement our pantries now and then, and also donate to our seniors on disability.

Hammond: I think it’s a wonderful thing, and it’s like a movement to have gardens as part of an organization’s work. There are a lot of community health centers who have jumped on board, you know, with the goal of helping address food needs and help the city overall.  

How can other nonprofit organizations start projects like this one? Any advice on how they can get their community involved? 

Hauk: This is a great opportunity for an afterschool program because kids really love it. They love being in the garden and they love being able to get dirty. I think they love that arc too, of planting and then seeing the plant sprout and then seeing it grow and then boom–there’s a sunflower or a squash or whatever. And starting the garden doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. We use recycled pots, storage bins, whatever we can reuse to grow most of our food. 

Morgan: Our ingredients are just time, volunteers, knowledge, and the ability to get dirty. Also, just wanting to do it and understanding why we do it and why it’s so important to our community. I’d say you just have to have good core volunteers and a good coordinator to lead them.

Hammond: I’ll say the first thing that you need to do is visit a garden. We’re really fortunate to have good gardens here in Mississippi, since we have a rural heritage here. We have the Mississippi Natural Science Museum, the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Ridgeland Wildflower Field. Of course, we also have our garden here at the Good Samaritan Center. But I really think when you visit a garden and you sit in that kind of space, what you want out of a garden will rise up inside of you. And then, just like that, an initiative forms and you will come in contact with people who have the knowledge and the expertise and the time to help you build the garden you’re supposed to have.

Volunteer Photo
Pictured above: Volunteer missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints plant okra.

Why is this program so important to the Jackson metro area and Mississippi in general?

Hammond: Above all, I think it is a measure of community resilience. We have a lot of problems to solve in Mississippi, but we cannot solve those problems unless we have meaningful relationships with others.We solve everything through our social relationships, and I really think that when we spend time with others in a garden, we work out our own problems. We work out collective problems, we relationship-build, and we create the social network that needs to be in place for us to solve the problems that we need to solve in this state.

And that happens at the local level. You know, people try to solve problems at a really large level, but every community and every neighborhood has its own resources, its own challenges, and its own gifts, and people need to be brought together in a deep and meaningful way to make progress happen. I think a garden is part of that. 

Morgan: I agree, and I think if everybody knows how to grow, just the simplest thing, it gets you started on a path of understanding the simple nature of everything. That it’s not magic, that everyone can have a garden or a beautiful front porch and enjoy it at the same time and be outside. Connect to nature, basically. And connect to the food that you eat. I hope that’s what people get from the garden. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

Hauk: You don’t have to start with a grand garden. You can start with a bucket and a plant.

Responses edited for brevity and clarity. Views expressed in interviews published on this site are solely those of the interviewees.

<strong>Q&A with Dr. Kina White</strong>

Q&A with Dr. Kina White

Headshot photo of Dr. Kina White
Dr. Kina White, Director of the Office of Community Health Improvement (OCHI) at the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH)

The Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) was recently awarded Age-Friendly Public Health Systems recognition by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH). We spoke with Dr. Kina White, Director of the Office of Community Health Improvement (OCHI) at MSDH, to talk about this great achievement and learn more about efforts to make Mississippi a more age-friendly state. Read on to see what Dr. White had to share!

What is healthy aging?

If we use the World Health Organization’s definition, healthy aging is defined as the “process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”. It enables people to be and do what they value throughout their everyday lives. 

Something that’s very important to consider when we think about healthy aging is that we’re all aging. I think that there’s this misperception that healthy aging is only applicable to older adults and it is not. The goal is for all of us to healthily age in our communities. 

How is MSDH working to make Mississippi more age-friendly?

Through collaboration with Trust for America’s Health, the Mississippi State Department of Health is working to advance an age-friendly ecosystem in Mississippi. The state department has adopted Trust for America’s Health’s 6 C’s framework for creating age-friendly public health systems and is using this framework to guide its work in this regard. 

The “6 C’s Framework” outlined by TFAH centers on advancing health equity when developing age-friendly public health systems. Right now, we’re working to support a local university to pursue the age-friendly university designation and we’re also helping employers take on more age-friendly practices in the workplace. So with this ecosystem, Mississippi is on a path to becoming an age-friendly state where we can create a healthy community that respects all persons so that we can all healthily age. 

What resources indicate that a community supports healthy aging? 

There are a number of resources to indicate that a community supports healthy aging. Affordable and reliable transportation is often one the greatest community needs. If a community is able to provide transport services for older adults–whether through a community-based van service or non-emergent medical transportation–then that community is supporting healthy aging in this capacity. Proper infrastructure, like walkable sidewalks, is another example.

Another example would be adequate training for service staff–like grocery store workers or cashiers. If those staff are effectively trained to work with older adults, who may have a language barrier or communication issue, then those customers would not feel stigmatized or ashamed that their communication needs may be different from someone else’s. 

It’s really about creating an environment where individuals can live and thrive and not have to relocate because the support services are not there. And it does require an elevated level of planning, communicating, and coordinating with individuals. There is also a policy element. There has to be a need for policy change in these communities to ensure that transportation or infrastructure-related policies are in place to create those community van services and safe sidewalks.

And so this work happens on multiple levels–a policy level, or it could be a systems level–or it could be an environmental level–but that work is ultimately necessary to building age-friendly communities within our state.

In your opinion, what does it mean to create a culture of health?

For me, a culture of health is one that is equitable and where all persons, all collective individuals and organizations are respective of differences and similarities. Without equity, that culture, in my opinion, is not well established or sustained.

What projects are you excited about? 

We have a new initiative called “Health Aging Champions”. It’s a volunteer-based program where older adults can volunteer to support our effort to become more age friendly as a state. 

Volunteers can help us learn what local communities need and how to best offer age-friendly services. This project also gives our older adults a voice at the table for a change, which is really exciting.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

We are proud to do this work and support all of our Mississippians as we age! I think this will be yet another great opportunity for collaboration in our state for sure. 

For more information, reach out to Dr. Kina White at

Responses edited for brevity and clarity. Views expressed in interviews published on this site are solely those of the interviewees.

<strong>Addressing Food Insecurity in the Nation’s ‘Hungriest State’</strong>

Addressing Food Insecurity in the Nation’s ‘Hungriest State’

On April 4, our team, along with one of our Battling Obesity workgroups attended the Mississippi Food Network Conference to learn more about local efforts to eliminate one of our state’s most pressing issues: food insecurity. 

At the county level, Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation and has been considered as the most food insecure state in the country by Feeding America for nearly a decade.

1 in 4 Mississippians deal with food insecurity, and it is a disparity that has been shown to put people at higher risk for obesity and chronic disease. And, although it may seem like a one-problem-one-solution issue, it actually requires a more holistic approach. 

Food insecurity is caused by a number of factors, or social determinants of health, such as income, transportation access, and local food availability. It’s also caused by food deserts–which, unfortunately, are very common in Mississippi. 

Food deserts are communities that have limited access to healthy, affordable foods. When identifying whether or not a community is a food desert, distance plays a key role. Residents must live between 1 and 10 miles from their nearest supermarket in order to have adequate access to food. But, in areas like the Mississippi Delta, where nearly 20% of the state’s population resides, residents have access to just one food market per 190.5 square miles. There is also store inventory to consider; as one participant of our community listening sessions noted, “most stores do not have enough variety of healthy food.” 

When people aren’t able to access fresh, healthy food–either because of distance or lack of availability–they may turn to eating at fast food places or restaurants as an alternative. This is how food insecurity leads to poor nutrition and adverse health outcomes like obesity. 

Our plan is to reduce food insecurity by 10% in the next five years by increasing food access and eliminating food deserts across the state. We’re proud to work with organizations like the Mississippi Food Network to strengthen our efforts and raise awareness around the importance of ending food insecurity. 

Click here to learn more about the latest State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) and how you can help improve our state’s health. Then, show us how you’re bettering community health by sending us your success story! Visit to get started.

FAT to Fit Olympic Games Makes Health Fun

FAT to Fit Olympic Games Makes Health Fun

In 2004, Jefferson County was reported as the most obese county in America. In 2010, Janell and Anthony Edwards attended the Global Obesity Summit in Jackson, and they realized that something needed to be done in terms of improving public health in Mississippi, starting in their community of Jefferson County. That same year, they created the FAT to Fit Olympic Games.

This past year, the Fayette Community Service Organization (FCSO) held its 9th Annual FAT to Fit Olympics Games on July 19 and 20 at Alcorn State. The FAT to Fit Olympic Games consists of many field day games, ranging from 3-on-3 basketball to tug of war, and they have recently added a qualifying event in other counties for four of the tournament games. Winners of all of the games receive a bike or a cash prize. All participants also go through a free health screening.

“Our mission is to foster health and wealth among young men and women, including youth, by empowering service and guidance. Our vision is to create healthier and wealthier communities in Mississippi by turning a negative that has plagued our state for so many years into a positive,” says Janell Edwards.

To date, the Fayette Community Services Organization has conducted over 15,789 free health screenings, and has awarded over 1000 new bicycles and over $4000 in cash and healthcare products. Their goal for the 2020 event is to have a total of five counties participate, and they hope to reach even more counties. 

One of the most helpful people in their journey has been Dr. Olu T. Ekundayo, who helped them realize the importance of getting clean data. 

“When you get the data on somebody’s blood pressure, it comes from a hospital where they have a blood pressure issue. So, we had an event where you’re at the best health possible, and we’re getting those real numbers. You get clean data — you’re not getting sick data,” says Anthony Edwards.

FAT to Fit Olympic Games outgrew both their locations at the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors facility and the local junior high gymnasium in Fayette, and when they realized they were going to be expanding into multiple counties and attracting more people, they decided to partner with Alcorn State and use their larger facilities. 

“We are dedicated to be a part of the solution. We are the inspiration for the nation fighting obesity. We want FAT to Fit to go nationwide. We’ve had participants from thirteen different Mississippi counties and five U.S. states. It will be based in health and people just coming out to have fun,” says Janell Edwards. 

FCSO is also involved in other projects that work to create a culture of health and help lessen the high rates of obesity in our state:

The Fitness is Fun – Community Health Engagement Awareness Program (FIF-CHEAP) implements community engagement activities in targeted counties to increase health knowledge. They provide community meetings, live radio talk segments, and live social media prize campaigns to foster deeper understandings of obesity risk factors and its correlation to social and lifestyle factors, while also promoting obesity prevention and treatment strategies. 

The Healthy Intervention Project Community (HIP-C) tracks the health of 3rd-6th graders with annual health screenings up until their senior year of high school. They have been doing this program for seven years, and their first class of students just graduated. The goal for this project is to establish health consciousness in young children.

The Community Garden in Fayette, MS will open in March 2020 and includes a pond, a walking trail, and a garden. The garden will also have a classroom style demo set up, and through partnerships with MSU Extension and Alcorn State Extension, they will offer gardening classes on site. 

Health Radio Segments – FCSO will have segments on their local radio with healthy advice and recipes in hopes of expanding health literacy throughout the community. This project is funded by the Mississippi State Department of Health. 

Learn more about the Fayette Community Service Organization on their Facebook

How to Have a Healthy Tailgate

How to Have a Healthy Tailgate

Southerners know the first sign of autumn isn’t the changing of the leaves, but the running of the ball. Football season is upon us! But though you’ll likely be surrounded by wings and Rotel dip at our favorite tailgating spots and might worry that you won’t have many options, never fear! Making football food healthy doesn’t have to mean celery sticks and fruit plates alone. Here are some yummy tailgate food ideas that would satisfy the tastes of any eater (and keep your doctor from hollering at you about your blood pressure).

Appetizer: Hummus

A Mediterranean dip comprised of garbanzo beans, tahini (a paste of ground sesame seeds), herbs to taste, and olive oil, hummus is a fast and tasty solution to satisfying savory cravings. Blend it yourself or grab it near the deli at any grocery store. Need a kick? Add sriracha or peppers to the blend for spicy, zesty goodness that you might even forget about not having some buffalo dip. Serve with crackers, bread, that side celery—however you like to dip!

Entree: Veggie burgers

Nothing says indulgence like a burger loaded with condiments, veggies, and cheese. The awesome part is you can always make a burger taste good, whether it’s keto, paleo, vegan—however you like to eat! Burger purist? Choose quality beef that’s free from preservatives. Going leaner? Use ground turkey or chicken, or even salmon or crab patties. Trying to get more plants in? Make your own veggie burgers! And don’t be afraid of fries as a side; just bake them instead of fry them. They’ll crisp up just as nicely!

Dessert: Options are endless!

Even if your team isn’t playing as well as you’d like, you can still make a dessert worth bragging on. Just like veggie burgers, desserts are some of the easiest products to make healthy, and so delicious that even the biggest sweets lover will enjoy them. Recipe call for eggs? Grab a plant-based egg replacer. Need milk and butter? Try non-dairy options, or their low-fat counterparts. Try fruit with low-fat, no sugar whipped cream. You can whip coconut milk in a blender with honey and vanilla!

So if you’re feeding Tigers or Bulldogs or Land Sharks or any of the other Mississippi teams playing their hearts out this football season, just know you can celebrate your team and still eat just as good with a few healthy twists!

Check out our Pinterest for even more healthy tailgating recipes! We’ve got a whole board on the topic.

Photo by Dragne Marius on Unsplash

UProot Mississippi builds bridges that connect Mississippians to opportunities and resources that can help inspire them to lead healthier lifestyles. So we were excited to feature our state’s strong legion of public-health workers for National Public Health Week 2018; these hard workers are committed to improving the health and quality of life of all Mississippians, and strive every day to achieve that goal. (You can check out the State Health Assessment and State Health Improvement Plan for more about Mississippi’s public health goals!)

Each day of National Public Health Week 2018 spotlighted a particular public health-concern, with insight from a Mississippi public-health expert. We started off the week with a focus on Behavioral Health:


Communicable Diseases:


Environmental Health:


Injury and Violence Prevention:


and finished the week with an empowering message on Ensuring the Right to Health.


We also celebrated with the Dr. Ed Thompson Walk for Public Health! See even more photos, and the live stream, on our Facebook page.



Check out these videos on our YouTube and subscribe to our channel for even more updates!





What if you got experience for your future career as early as high school? The Academies of Jackson Public School District, installed at each of the seven high schools and the district’s Career Development Center, give students the opportunity to get a head start on their next step in life. Whether they’re interested in healthcare, technology, business or academia, students get special opportunities to learn how professionals operate in the real world.

At the first-annual Youth Health Matters Symposium at the Jackson Medical Mall,  Health Science Academy students got a health-professions smorgasbord. Students browsed information tables and attended mini seminars hosted by local colleges, universities, state agencies, and nonprofits. 

“Considering how so many students don’t get an opportunity to know about the different fields, (the Symposium) gives them some important exposure,” said Felicia Wolfe, Academy coach at Lanier High School.

Students aspired to have careers in a variety of health careers. Lanier High School juniors Sabastian Robinson, Jamauria Davis, and Toyana Funches, who want to be a veterinarian, pharmacist and cardiologist, respectively, all said they appreciated the insight offered to them by the Symposium. Students with career aspirations besides healthcare found the event helpful, too.

“It’s helped me learn more about mental health,” says 16-year-old Rosalio Hernandez, a Jim Hill High School junior who wants to become a lawyer.

Events like the symposium are important for JPS students. The 27,000-strong district has mostly black students, who alongside Latino and Native American students nationwide are largely underrepresented in STEM majors in college, despite their high interest in the subject matter. These numbers are especially low for girls and women, and their low numbers in the STEM workforce reflect that. But with events like the symposium, students not only see their community members represented in these fields but also the real-world impact of the work of health professionals. These educational opportunities make them more likely to stick to and complete their STEM major upon enrollment in college—and hopefully return to their communities to build an even stronger culture of health at home.


How Young People Can Help Create a Culture of Health

Encourage them to get involved. Young people are extremely powerful agents of change. When they volunteer, they gain empathy for different groups and better learn how to serve the needs of a diverse group of people.

Educate them. Most schools have vocational programs and a variety of science electives and extracurricular activities. Talk to your school board about ways to empower kids to learn new healthy skills, or ways to engage health professionals in the community to put on health fairs.

Expand their perspectives. Health is not just about medical issues. Consider how public spaces like the availability of walking and biking trails can affect health. For students who are not pursuing biology, for example, volunteering to clear a walking path can contribute to the community’s health. Emotional and mental health are also critical to total wellness; this health symposium put on workshops on healthy dating and domestic violence awareness. Reach out to mental health professionals, too!

How one of the healthiest companies in Mississippi makes workplace wellness easy

How one of the healthiest companies in Mississippi makes workplace wellness easy

Kellye Smith is a resource specialist for Ross & Yerger, one of the largest privately owned insurance agencies in Mississippi with offices in Jackson, Tupelo, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In Jackson, Ross & Yerger employs 116 individuals who have on-site access to a gym,  on-the-clock half hour per week to exercise, quarterly health and fitness challenges and occasional food kaleidoscopes, colorful events where employees learn about and sample new foods—mostly, new fruits and vegetables.

So it’s no surprise that in 2016 the Mississippi Business Journal ranked Ross & Yerger the healthiest privately-owned, medium-sized company in the state. It’s a well-earned title, and reflects its commitment to health in the hard data; the company has a 96.5 percent employee retention rate. Its employees’ overweight BMIs and cholesterol levels dropped 11 and 18 percentage points since 2008, respectively.


Eliminating Obstacles to Good Health

So how does a company in Mississippi, oft-cited as the unhealthiest state in America not only for adults but also for children, do such good work? Smith says it comes from making health an institutional priority for the company, and eliminating obstacles to good health for their employees.

“We’ve seen enough research to know if your workplace is not a healthy environment you’re going to have a hard time keeping people in the most physical sense; if you have sick employees, how good is that going to be to your workforce?” she said.


A Company-Wide Goal

Good health is an institutional goal at Ross & Yerger. Its leadership team is deeply invested in making sure employees enjoy going to work, Smith says, and surveys employees to ask them what they want—an effort they take seriously and continue to tweak and drive so that it’s part of the work culture. “When you come to work here, pretty quickly after orientation, we’re going to sit down and have a conversation about the wellness program,” she says.

Wellness for Mind and Body

The company doesn’t focus on physical wellness alone, either; employees have access to free counseling, quarterly seminars on stress relief and a CEO, Smith says, who is invested in the happiness of his employees.

“A successful wellness program is if you can prevent one heart attack from happening,” she said. “You don’t have to make everyone radical vegans or marathon runners. Get them to a place that’s easily sustainable so that we can prevent the onslaught of health conditions that we see in the state of Mississippi. To be able to combat that is really what we’re trying to do here.”

Try some tips from Ross & Yerger you could replicate for your own business:

1. Make health a priority
Ross & Yerger’s healthcare system wouldn’t work well without organization. Consider developing a comprehensive wellness plan for your company. 

2. Build camaraderie
Teamwork makes the dream work. At Ross & Yerger, employees can complete fitness challenges together.

3. Set the example!
From the top down, Ross & Yerger prioritizes physical and emotional health.  Invite every person in your company to participate!