Beyond Books: How NYC Libraries Promote Teen Health
For young people in New York City, a library card is more than just a piece of plastic to check out books: it’s a passport to the city—and a bridge to the future.
At several New York Public Library branches around the city, teenagers are taking part in an academic enrichment program called BridgeUp. Launched in 2013, BridgeUp is the brainchild of the Helen Gurley Brown Trust, designed to give kids in low-income communities the tools and skills to succeed in school and beyond. Every school day afternoon, dozens of Student Scholars and Fellows, typically a recent college graduate, meet in ten city libraries. Since it began, the program has expanded beyond academics, adding a health and wellness component known as Be Well, created by Alwyn Cohall, professor of Sociomedial Sciences, and his co-director at the Harlem Health Promotion Center, Renee Cohall, LCSW-R.
“Fellows develop such strong relationships with the kids, and it’s easy for them to fall into a role of a child’s therapist, friend, caregiver,” says Angela Aldam, a physician who serves as a consultant for BridgeUp and the Helen Gurley Brown Trust. As she visited BridgeUp libraries, it soon became clear that many of the children had unmet health needs. “Our fellows were being asked to provide guidance and support, but didn’t have the experience when it came to health problems. Hearing that, we knew we wanted to build out a health component.”
Aldam originally envisioned Be Well as simple and straightforward: helping students get new eyeglasses and doctors appointments. Today, the program provides students with clinical care and counseling, both directly and through referrals, and it’s also grown into something bigger and more creative. Every month, Be Well workshops cover health topics from stress to nutrition—all suggested by the Scholars, their parents, and the Fellows.
“What we really want to try to do is get rid of the siloes between academics, youth development, and health,” says Alwyn Cohall. “We’re talking about different aspects of the same kid. If a young person gets pregnant or is so depressed that they don’t want to get out of bed, they’re not going to take advantage of all that BridgeUp has to offer.”
Be Well staff, including students from the Mailman School, the School of Social Work, and Teachers’ College, help organize field trips around the city, from Columbia’s Morningside campus to the Whitney Museum. BridgeUp students can also apply for Magic Grants, which allow them to pursue individual goals; recipients have used funds to take cooking classes, buy computer animation and drawing tools, and sign up for theater and dance workshops.
Over the summer, each BridgeUp branch brought a passion project to life by finding a creative way to express what they learned about health, culture, and life in New York City outside of their neighborhoods. At a library in the Belmont area of the Bronx, students voted to learn about four different countries by traveling to neighborhoods across the city to meet and interview immigrants from China, Greece, Brazil, and Italy. Behind the Allerton branch, students designed, planted, weeded, and watered an urban garden, growing tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans, and jalapenos—then celebrated their harvest with a party, complete with healthful quantities of home-grown and home-made salsa.
At the heart of all of Be Well’s activities is the Youth Board, a group of 12 students who serve as peer health educators and give feedback and approval on new materials and ideas used in the Be Well curriculum.
“From the beginning, we knew the first thing we needed to do was to create a Youth Board,” says Renee Cohall. “They help us reach their peers, and also help us understand the issues they’re facing every day. When you look at all the ways they have turned out to be useful, they’re invaluable to the project.”
The Youth Board advises on everything from the right number of hashtags to be used on an Instagram post about good sleeping habits to hypothetical scenarios where they can encourage friends to make healthier choices. For a recent project, the Board created a Law and Order-style video outlining Michael Pollen’s Food Rules, with the help of Pamela Koch, adjunct professor at Teachers College, and her nutrition curriculum.
The Youth Board has also been key to finalizing the Be Well Resource Guide: a year in the making, the document maps available health resources within a five-mile radius of the BridgeUp library branches. To create it, Be Well staff researched and vetted contacted afterschool activities, mental health programs, and other health services available to kids and parents. The Youth Board was involved every step of the way: they recommend including pictures of all the resources, added inspirational quotes and health facts. The guide will soon be available in a mobile-friendly format, thanks to the efforts of two computer-savvy Board members.
Youth Board members cite a variety of reasons for joining: it’s a good way to make new friends and help peers dealing with stress or anxiety. The experience also looks good on a college application. One theme they all share: as a member of the Board, they feel empowered. As Joshua, a 10th grader from the Allerton branch, put it: “Everything goes through us because we’re the best ambassadors for ourselves.”