UI health make-a-thon1

From left, Garden Hills Academy fifth-graders Eustach Nakakula-Wingi, Kaniyah Fondia, Joseph Mirelez, Samiya Colar and Gayle Frazier gather in the courtyard at the school in Champaign, which will soon be a new health and wellness space for students who are overwhelmed — an idea they submitted at last spring’s ‘Health Make-A-Thon’ at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

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CHAMPAIGN — Think “health innovation,” and maybe new medical devices or genetically-engineered cancer drugs come to mind.

Try therapy miniature horses or an elementary school “calming courtyard.”

Those were some of the top ideas submitted in spring during the Carle Illinois College of Medicine’s first “Health Make-A-Thon,” an effort to “democratize” health innovation by gathering suggestions from scientists, students and everyday citizens in Champaign County.

Now the medical school is sponsoring the second round, and any Illinois resident can take part.

“It’s open to anybody in Illinois with an idea around health or wellness,” said Professor Ruby Mendenhall, assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation at the medical school.

From now until Jan. 6, Illinois residents can submit their idea for improving human health. As with last spring’s competition, the 10 best ideas will each be supported by $10,000 in resources from the UI’s Health Maker Lab to create a prototype.

Finalists will be notified in February 2020, and winners will be chosen at the Health Make-a-Thon on March 28. To learn more or submit an idea, visit healthmakerlab.medicine.illinois.edu.

The inaugural event drew 140 submissions, half from the community, Mendenhall said.

The youngest team to make the finals was a group of students from Garden Hills Academy in Champaign, who suggested a health and wellness space in their school for kids who are upset or overwhelmed.

The students — fourth-graders at the time — weren’t among the 10 winners, but UI officials were so taken with the initiative that they’ve continued working with them to flesh out the plans. They hope to make it a national model for schools to provide spaces to address trauma and the social-emotional needs of children, Mendenhall said.

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Melissa Kearns, magnet coordinator at Garden Hills Academy, which has an engineering theme, said the fourth-graders had lots of ideas, from a device that could predict a heart attack to a watch with reminders for Alzheimer’s patients. They voted on 30, and the calming space won.

“They were really crazy about something that would benefit their school,” Kearns said.

The idea is that students who are anxious about a big test or had an argument on the bus could use the space to relax or do “mindfulness” activities.

“A lot of people get kind of worked up a lot,” said Samiya Colar, one of the students who came up with the idea. “They really need a place to come so they don’t act crazy.”

Garden Hills uses other methods to calm anxious students, including “fidget toys” or spaces in the hallway where they can do jumping jacks.

“They were looking for something bigger,” Kearns said.

They decided to put the calming space in an under-utilized outdoor courtyard, which already has a small playground structure, concrete benches and empty garden containers.

Colar and her co-creators — including Kaniyah Fondia, Gayle Frazier, Eustach Nakakula-Wingi and Joseph Mirelez — envision a place where students can work off energy on an obstacle course or fitness equipment, relax on indoor-outdoor furniture, or work out stress in small zen gardens where they can rake designs in the sand.

“We could have a reading corner. Some people like reading,” Nakakula-Wingi suggested.

“I think we should have murals, because painting is just really relaxing,” Frazier said.

“Or yoga, because it relaxes your body,” added Fondia.

The students will survey their peers during the spring semester to find out what activities they’d like to see. The UI’s Siebel Center for Design is working with the students to build prototypes, Kearns said.

The project could have school-wide impact and more. Kearns hopes to incorporate it into Garden Hills PE classes, so students can wear fitness monitors to measure the difference in their heart rates before and after calming activities, she said. Those results would be part of a UI research project about the effectiveness of the calming courtyard, which other schools could then emulate, she said.

The students said they never imagined being involved in a project of this magnitude.

“It’s huge for them,” Kearns said. “It gives them an opportunity to be leaders or engineers in a way that stretches beyond our school building.”

The idea applies to lots of scenarios at any school, from kids under academic pressure to those who have experienced real trauma, she said.

“What’s really cool is that our kids came up with these ideas,” Kearns said. “They were able to recognize that their peers need some of these strategies when they’re upset or just need a break.”

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One of the winning ideas last spring was submitted by Sarah Nixon of Urbana: to use miniature horses as animal therapy for children exposed to trauma.

Nixon works on a farm outside Champaign, tending to goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys, and found the experience helpful in overcoming trauma in her own life and gaining “resilience.” Through that work, she encountered miniature horses at livestock auctions and recognized their potential for working with children.

Using large horses for equine therapy is fairly well-established, Nixon said, “but the work with miniature horses is only just starting to take hold.”

“Miniature horses are tremendously popular because of their size. They can be pets. And of course, they’re adorable,” she said.

Trust is “incredibly important” to horses, and they can model that for children who have suffered trauma and are afraid to trust, have lost interest in play or even recoil from physical affection, she said.

“In general, they are very affectionate, very gentle creatures. They’re patient,” she said.

Nixon is still recruiting trainers and volunteers and establishing community partnerships for the “Miniature Horse Power” project, including with the DREAM House, a program to develop leadership and academic excellence in young black males. An Ohio expert in miniature equine therapy has signed on to train her handlers.

She hopes to acquire the horses by early spring and launch the project in summer — not as a business but as a program run by an existing nonprofit group to serve children.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).