This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
The nonprofit Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (LAHC) has spent decades providing a variety of services for Dearborn residents, most recently using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding to make physical activity more accessible to all.
LAHC programs are funded in part by SNAP-Ed grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF). SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches those eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
On top of curating programming that encourages healthy living, LAHC is also focused on policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work, which reaches beyond direct education to remove bigger-picture barriers to nutrition and physical activity. In partnership with Healthy Dearborn, a collaboration between Dearborn Public Schools, the City of Dearborn, and Beaumont Health, LAHC spearheaded a policy that allows members of the community to use Dearborn Public Schools facilities like tracks, weight rooms, and gyms.
Women at a WOW class offered by LAHC.
That initiative arose from LAHC’s years of community engagement and assessment work, all of which is done with a lens of cultural sensitivity to the unique needs of Dearborn’s large Arab-American and Muslim populations. LAHC found that inadequate physical activity among Arab-American women, particularly those in the Muslim community, is a key contributor to increased risk factor for many chronic health issues.
“Community interviews, workshop data, and feedback consistently showed a concern for the lack of culturally appropriate opportunities for our female populations,” says Marci Mahssney, program manager for LAHC's Healthy Living Program. “Specifically, this included the inability to perform specific activities in public, restrictions on attending mixed-gender facilities, modest dress and specific dress adherences, and lack of knowledge and inspiration.”
LAHC’s work with Healthy Dearborn and its member organizations addressed those challenges by successfully advocating for a Dearborn Public Schools district-wide policy that allows community members to access school facilities for physical activity. District-wide scheduled classes and open gym times are now available during school hours, after school hours, and when schools are closed during the summer.
“This policy change has dramatically increased access to safe places for physical activity promotion and community programming,” Mahssney says.
LAHC works particularly closely with Dearborn schools and students on their PSE initiatives.
Women at a WOW class offered by LAHC.
“Our SNAP-Ed funding makes it possible for us to focus on further developing our partnerships by strengthening our close relationships with local schools and the Healthy Dearborn coalition,” she says.
LAHC’s effort to open Dearborn school facilities up to the public has resulted in a variety of new programming tailored to the needs of Dearborn’s diverse community. One premier example of this is LAHC's Workout Opportunities for Women (WOW) program.
WOW offers a solution by providing free female-only exercise classes in the now publicly open school facilities. LAHC takes WOW participants' privacy and religious practices very seriously. During the exercise classes, windows are covered, doors are locked, and signs are posted outside the room letting others know to not come in.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LAHC has been unable to host WOW classes in person, but the program has moved to Zoom instead. According to Linda Bazzi, health educator and community outreach liaison at LAHC, the classes remain successful.
WOW is just one early example of how policy changes can provide the supportive environment in which needed programming can take place, resulting in positive changes in the Dearborn community.
“We are constantly evolving programming to meet specific, growing needs,” Mahssney says. “PSE initiatives that take unique population-based considerations into account, such as factors that prevent Muslim females from engaging in physical activity and fitness, will help other educators and partners to develop culturally appropriate strategies and programming. Now they can deliver that programming in a more suitable environment, ultimately better meeting the needs of our local community.”
LAHC’s approach has been a great success with Dearborn residents so far. Leila Deeb, a Dearborn resident and a Muslim, says she never exercised before she started attending WOW classes. Now, she participates in every WOW session on Zoom, and she feels encouraged to exercise even when classes aren’t being held.
“I really like LAHC. They’ve always been there for me," she says. "They make it easy for us to access programming and they do whatever is comfortable for us. They’re great."