Over seven weeks this summer, four youth workers between the ages of 14 and 18 from the Niagara County Office of Workforce Development served as health ambassadors for the Niagara Falls community. The young women first learned about public health issues including COVID-19, vaccines, and social determinants of health, and then went into the community to engage members in conversations about these issues through door-to-door canvassing, social media and poster campaigns, outreach events for seniors, and educational workshops for their peers. The program was hosted by Niagara University’s Rose Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity and Mission, in partnership with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
On Aug. 18, the ambassadors—Ayla Patterson, Nye'Aria Brown, Nevaeh Williams, and Rose Bright—shared their work during a closing celebration at Niagara Falls Public Library.
“We are extremely excited about these young people and proud of them because when we all think about science, we think it is an adult space, we think that adults get to make decisions about how we all should live healthful lives,” said Dr. Rolanda Ward, endowed faculty director of the Ostapenko Center. “But this process was about having young people learn some of these adult concepts, and then translate them into language where everyone has access to information about what keeps us healthy.”
Ostapenko Center youth summer outreach coordinator Matthew Cosmai, summer outreach students Javeon Mathews and Shunlei Win, and project director Kaylyn Townsend provided leadership for the ambassadors throughout the program.
In addition to learning about public health, the ambassadors found out more about the resources available to residents through community organizations such as the Community Health Center of Niagara Falls, Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative, Heart, Love & Soul, Pinnacle Community Services, YWCA—Carolyn's House, Community Missions, Inc., Field & Fork Network, and the Coalition for Economic Justice. They also learned ways they could become more involved in their community from community leader Ezra P. Scott Jr. and Councilman Donta Myles.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that knowledge is power,” Myles told the ambassadors during the ceremony, “so I believe that what you are doing to inform us about the things that a lot of us didn’t know, is amazing. You are no longer the future, you are present leaders of today. We thank you for all the work that you are doing and we’ll be looking for more from you in the future.”
Some of the program's activities included creating chalk drawings on streets in the city that featured motivational messages and information about public health and resources; doing COVID outreach at Heart, Love & Soul and Community Missions; and meeting with the CEO of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and members of hospital departments including pharmacy services, infectious disease, outpatient behavioral health and psychiatry services, the P3 Center, the athletic trainer and sports medicine, rehabilitation, Health Home, business, the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, and volunteer services.
The ambassadors also toured the Niagara University campus and provided COVID-19 education that focused on wearing a mask, proper hand washing, the effectiveness of vaccines, how germs spread, and how to take a COVID-19 test for students at summer camps hosted by Niagara Falls High School and the YWCA—Carolyn’s House.
The young women said that the experience helped them step out of their comfort zones and inspired them to continue to be community activists.
“This summer, I learned that helping people in our community is important,” said Rose Bright. “It gave me more motivation to help people in need. In the future, as an ambassador, I will try to help the community by doing more volunteering and eventually starting my own charity for people in need.”
Although the program came to an end in August, the work the ambassadors did will continue, said Ward.
“We will be using their posters, putting them on bus shelters, in the newspaper, and on social,” she said. “Their products are how we will communicate with the community on how to keep safe.”