For families struggling with housing and wondering where their next meal is coming from, the focus is on putting affordable food on the table, not necessarily nutritious food. The priority is keeping their children safe, not making sure that they’re getting enough exercise.
Through the Operation CHOICES program at three West Philadelphia homeless shelters served by CHOP’s Homeless Health Initiative (HHI), families have the opportunity to learn about nutrition and exercise and its impact on overall health and well-being. Armed with information, mothers can make choices that will improve their family’s health.
“I learned how to cook healthier,” says Katrina Hill, who was a faithful attendee of Operation CHOICES when she and her children were residents at Lutheran Settlement House/Jane Addams Place. “I read nutrition labels now, looking out for trans fats and saturated fats.”
Hill learned this information from volunteers who lead weekly sessions at the shelters. Most volunteers are CHOP employees from departments as varied as Nursing, Information Services, Psychology and Environmental Services; other volunteers are from Philadelphia area colleges.
Fun and education for moms and kids
While moms are in Operation CHOICES classes, their children go to SPARK (Safe Physical Activity and Recreation for Kids). Both programs include fun activities — games, dancing or yoga — and nutrition education. Kids receive lessons appropriate for their age.
“My kids loved SPARK night,” says Hill. “They went to the park, they got some time without mom to do fun stuff with the other kids. They learned about healthy eating, too. They eat a lot of vegetables, and given the choice, they pick fruit over cake for a snack.”
While living in a shelter, families find it difficult to make healthy choices. Residents rarely have the ability to keep fresh milk or other fresh foods in their rooms. Meals are at fixed times, and if work or other obligations forces a family to miss a mealtime, they often end up eating fast food because it’s the only affordable choice close by.
Safe outdoor spaces for children to play aren't always accessible either, and lack of childcare and transportation restrict moms’ opportunities for exercise. Operation CHOICES uses a curriculum specially developed to address those issues and others faced by families living in shelters.
Melissa Berrios Johnson, MSW, who trains volunteers and coordinates and facilitates Operation CHOICES, says, "Moms tell me they appreciate the opportunity to focus on themselves and their health while they know their children are learning about what’s good for them at the same time. And some of them really get into dancing when we use that as an exercise activity.”
Hill, who is now living in her own apartment with her five children (Kamir, Khira, Mehki, Jamie and Kylic), used Operation CHOICES exercise sessions as a springboard to get back into shape. She even ran — and completed — the 10-mile Broad Street Run in 2012.
“It felt great to finish that run,” Hill says. “I ran cross country in high school, but had never gone that distance before.”
In its four years of existence, Operation CHOICES has grown from six volunteers and 72 participants in 2009 to 139 volunteers and 1,600 participants in 2012. That growth wouldn’t have been possible without the support of donations from the Philadelphia Foundation and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.
“We really see kids, youth and families in shelters as among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable populations,” says Beatriz Vieira, vice president for Community Impact for the Philadelphia Foundation. “We’re very interested in supporting organizations that reach these children and youth.
“Shelters have such little opportunity to bring in quality programming because of their tight budgets. So Operation CHOICES is a great way to reach families. It provides such critical support for families.”
HHI staff have presented the Operation CHOICES model at conferences and published articles on Operation CHOICES in the national Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved and on the National Health Care for the Homeless Council website.
The next step is to share the Operation CHOICES curriculum with other shelters — locally and nationwide — so the program can be replicated.
Originally posted: May 2013