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By Jasmin Singh
Lexi Ruhle learned about the dangers of smoking through a puppet show.
“I knew smoking was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,” she said. “[The show] was teaching us why we shouldn’t smoke because it makes our lungs look like a cheetah.”
Ruhle didn’t go to a theater to see the show. She saw it in her second-grade classroom last year at Manteo Elementary School.
The performers were high school students participating in Dare County’s special health education program, Peer Power. Building on the concept that kids are more likely to listen to other kids than to adults, the Dare County Department of Public Health and the county school system created Peer Power in 2002. It’s a class taken for credit that trains high school students to teach their younger peers about healthy lifestyle choices.
“Peer Power was developed as an approach to chronic-disease prevention,” said Kelly Nettnin, a communications specialist with the health department. “[It’s] kind of a grassroots effort, where kids get this information very young and they live up to a healthy lifestyle to prevent chronic disease.”
She said that Dare is the only county in the state that has a peer-to-peer health program in a K-12 setting.
Tracie Tawes, a second-grade teacher at Manteo Elementary, said her students love having high school students come to her classroom to teach about healthy habits.
“This group gave up recess, and they weren’t upset about it,” Tawes said.
Students teaching students
The program has been integrated into the schools’ health education curriculum since its start 13 years ago. Alex Gardner, a public health education specialist for the program, said she and her colleagues train the students, who are selected by their school counselors.
“We educate them on nutrition; physical activity; and alcohol, tobacco and other drugs,” Gardner said.
After participating in Peer Power in seventh grade, Joey Dunn, now an 11th-grader at First Fight High School in Kill Devil Hills, said she wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side. She trained as a peer health educator last year.
“We make lesson plans and we have to make the procedure and the materials that we’re going to use,” Dunn said. “And then we teach it.”
First Flight Middle School student Emmy Trivette said she loved learning how to say no to peer pressure and drugs. “I didn’t know there were different ways,” she said. “They had little skits, and I saw what to do to say no.
“I know I’m going to continue using these things.”
Cutting the age gap
This fall semester, 23 high school students taught 376 kids.
Tawes said having the older students in the classroom allows their younger peers to have stable role models.
“They love having those older kids,” she said. “And it’s not just one or two kids. It’s a group of high schoolers, and the kids can relate to at least one of those people who is up there, and look up to them.”
“No offense to teachers, but it was easier because they had experience too with what we were going to deal with,” Trivette said. “They were really nice, and I think it is good that they were in high school, and the fact that they are closer to our age than adults.”
Katie Hardt, a health and physical education instructor at First Flight Middle, said when high school students say that eating well and not smoking or using recreational drugs are wise decisions, the younger kids “want to follow in their footsteps.”
Gardner said the Peer Power educators have to live up to the program’s health goals, which can be challenging in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. She said she tells them, “You need to be role models wherever you are.
You don’t know who is watching you.”
A lifelong impact
A 2012 evaluation, conducted by an East Carolina University graduate student and county health department staff, indicated that students who participate in the program exhibit healthier lifestyle choices than those who don’t.
These students are more likely to exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables and abstain from using tobacco products, the evaluation found.
“I think Peer Power is just one piece of the puzzle in the way we educate the youth of the community,” said Solomon Dixon, a health and physical education instructor at First Flight Middle. “But I think it is a vital piece of the puzzle.”
Second-grade teacher Tawes said the program taught her students to think “outside of the box.”
“One time, we only had 15 minutes left for recess, and the kids came up to me and said, ‘But [the peer educators] said we need a lot of exercise,’” she said. “They were trying to get me to let them stay out longer.”
Dunn said she enjoyed the younger kids’ “fresh brains.”
It was easy to teach them, she said, “because they were always excited about what we had to say. It definitely helped teach me how I should go about living my life.”
Grade-schooler Lexi Ruhle said she can’t wait until she’s in high school and can be a peer health educator.
“I would like to come in to different grades and [talk] to kids about why they shouldn’t do drugs and smoke and stuff,” she said. “It’s really cool.”