NJHI Director Bob Atkins on Engaging Youth Upstream to Build Healthier Communities and Our Next Generation of Leaders

“Let’s make sure we hear from every voice. We know some people have softer voices, but if we don’t hear from them, we’re missing out.”

An adult coach from Trenton was overheard saying this to her youth team during New Jersey Health Initiatives’ Next Generation Community Leaders (NGCL) recent youth retreat. What she articulated to her team of youth, who are focused on building a healthier community for their families, friends and neighbors, echoes the aim of the NGCL initiative. As the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJHI is dedicated to supporting innovations and driving conversations to build healthier New Jersey communities. The NGCL program recognizes that youth are an underutilized community asset – a softer voice that is often missing from the health conversation. NJHI: Next Generation Community Leaders pairs their time, talent and idealism with the resources to create meaningful change that improves health outcomes in their communities.

More than 100 youth from 11 communities supported by the NGCL initiative arrived at YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford for two days of training that included an introduction to population health and the social determinants of health, the community impact of the political decision-making process and activities to strengthen communication and build trust.

Through dirt streaks and tumbles into brackish water, the youth learned perseverance. In meeting fellow attendees from across the state, they displaced preconceived ideas and grasped the value of collaboration. For some of the youth, and their coaches, the retreat brought their first canoeing experience–a challenge emphasizing the need for strategy, teamwork and commitment–with a partner they had only met on the bus to Medford.

This early foundation will serve these youth as they meet the partners addressing their communities’ health needs, and design and lead summer projects that will contribute to the work of building a healthier New Jersey.

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