It's a well-known aphorism that healthy teenagers become healthy adults, and healthy adults are the backbone of a productive nation.
Yet in the District of Columbia, as it is in America as a whole, significant numbers of teenagers are beset by obesity and other health challenges, coping with the fallout from ignorance and lack of knowledge about sex and their bodies, and engaging in habits and behaviors that threaten not just their health, but also their well-being.
For example, nearly one in four teens in the District has more than one child and the average age of a teen mother in D.C. is 16. Also, babies born to teenage mothers are at a higher risk of dying before their first birthday, and these young moms have a much higher likelihood of dropping out of high school than their peers.
These are just a few of the realities that are the impetus behind a D.C. Department of Health-driven initiative called "I Care About Me." Health officials described this latest health push as an aggressive, comprehensive campaign designed to counter some major health issues local teenagers face.
"We have taken a different approach – earlier intervention," said Dr. Mohammad Akhter, the director of the D.C. Department of Health (DOH). "This is the first time we've had so comprehensive a [plan]. Normally, we start off when someone becomes pregnant. This is open-ended and ongoing. As students age, we'll be picking them up at the very start."
Akhter said the multi-agency campaign seeks to raise the awareness and knowledge of pre-conception health for District teens between the ages of 16 and 23. If they are healthy and delay sexual activity, their outcomes rise substantially. And he said if young women do become pregnant, at least they can be healthy.
"One of the big differences this time around is that in the past we have laid the responsibility on parents and the school system or gone to communities," said Akhter. "This is the first time we are making them partners. This is your opportunity to become knowledgeable."
He said parents and other partners will become the lead on issues involving young people, hold discussions among themselves and devise practical ways to help teens. All of this is a way to make the entire process of healthy living a proactive part of young people's lives and to give them the tools to take care of themselves.
Karen P. Watts, the bureau chief of DOH's Perinatal and Infant Health Department, reiterated the department's plan to deal with specific teen problems from a holistic point of view. That includes encouraging teens to eat right and stressing fitness; helping them to protect themselves in any sexual encounters they might engage in; getting them to go for annual health checks; not being afraid to ask for help; and focusing on getting a sound education and securing their futures.
These themes were repeated again and again at the teen health campaign launch titled "I Care About Me." The event took place at the Deanwood Recreation Center and Library in Northeast on Monday, May 21.
Dozens of teens exercised, listened to health officials and other experts talk about ways to stay fit, watched a demonstration of how to properly put on male and female condoms, and sampled easily prepared healthy foods such as oranges with cinnamon, turkey wraps with cilantro and chicken salad with raisins. The crowd enjoyed music provided by SafeintheStreetz and ZOL 107.9 FM. They also ate a healthy meal from Subway and cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake.
Participants heard from Akhter, Watts, Dr. Renee Jenkins, an adolescent medicine specialist from Howard University, Tafari Ali, outreach coordinator of Metro TeenAIDS, and students who shared personal experiences. Big Tigger, of NBC4, and WPGC radio personality Sunni served as master and mistress of ceremonies.
Elena Rivera said she was most surprised to hear that one-third of the District's teenagers are obese or overweight.
"It was surprising to me. The stats are so grim," said Rivera, a 23-year-old Adams-Morgan resident. "There tends to be a disconnect because these effects happen over a long period of time. They don't see the ties between their actions and the long-term consequences."
Fitness expert Steve Hayes, 61, showed people some simple exercises he said are guaranteed to help anyone who does them stay fit. He lamented the changes in lifestyle and the sedentary nature of life in this country that leads to obesity and other health problems.
"When I was young, I never saw a fat kid when I was growing up. Teenagers need to eat a good breakfast with whole grain," he said. "They also need eight to nine hours of sleep and three to four hour of exercise every week. When we were young, we exercised every day. My exercise program uses everything we did as kids."
Culinary Arts Instructor Chef Terrell Danley, also known as "Chef Tee," – who along with 11 students from the Potomac Jobs Corps Center – prepared the "prelude to lunch," said these types of events are essential.
"This is extremely important. I wish there were more things like this and more participation from teens, to let our teens grow," he said. "We have programs sponsored, run and participated in by teens."
Watts said DOH officials will continue to build out the program and Akhter explained that health officials will be engaging with, and assessing what the 14,000 young people in the Mayor's Summer Youth Program think about their health.
"We want to stress fitness," she said. "So how do we engage youth? How do we get them to put down toys and stop watching TV?"
In addition to getting yearly checkups and vaccinations, and using condoms to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to prevent disease, Watts said it is also important to get twice-a-year dental exams.
Mental health is equally important, Akhter said. That means making sure teens get help to cope with stress, avoid and get assistance for the abuse of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, and also to learn about their families' health histories.
Watts said organizers will also be bringing young people at recreation centers into their program. In addition to reaching out to the Latino community, DOH has also launched a Twitter hashtag #AboutMeDC, and in Spanish #PorMiLatinoDC, to provide campaign updates to promote its messages and the health hotline number, 1-800-666-2229.