Sallie Beth Johnson
PINEHURST – A request for help with a program for adults with intellectual disabilities introduced a new population of the underserved to FirstHealth Community Health Services and resulted in a recent award from North Carolina Special Olympics.
As the “Outstanding Corporation” award winner from Special Olympics’ Northern Piedmont Area, FirstHealth Community Health Services joined recognized athletes, families, coaches, volunteers, organizations, media and coordinators from across the state. Nominations were reviewed by an Awards Committee made up of five volunteers, including a Special Olympics coach, athlete and sponsor.
Moore County Special Olympics coordinator Robin Sheffield nominated FirstHealth for the award, especially noting the numerous personal contributions of Community Health Services health educator Sallie Beth Johnson to the Special Olympics cause.
Sheffield is the mother of a Special Olympics athlete.
“Sallie Beth has done this on her own time and her own accord,” Sheffield says. “It wasn’t something we asked her to do. She’s awesome, and the kids love her.”
FirstHealth’s involvement with Special Olympics began in September 2007 with a call from Sandhills Community College (SCC) about preventive health classes for the school’s Project Succeed program for developmentally disabled adults. Although eager to help, the Community Health Services staff had concerns about the literacy level of its program materials and the ability of individuals with intellectual disabilities to make and sustain healthy behavior changes.
Johnson confirmed some of those concerns when, during a meeting with an SCC compensatory education instructor, she observed some of the poor nutrition choices that Project Succeed students were making during break times.
“I realized the need to offer our Healthy Eating Every Day class,” she says. “Since we are dedicated to reaching those most in need of services, I knew we couldn’t overlook this population and the enthusiastic interest from Project Succeed.”
As she looked for resources and guidance for the new endeavor, Johnson discovered helpful information from the Office on Disability and Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She and Community Health Administrative Director Chris Miller met with the program’s manager, who told them about national and state data showing health disparities in the field of disabilities.
“We learned about People-First Language, adaptable fitness equipment and sample nutrition and physical activity curriculums from the field’s leaders, including the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago,” Johnson says.
By winter/spring 2008, FirstHealth had begun to pilot an adapted Healthy Eating Every Day class for SCC’s Project Succeed students.
FirstHealth’s interest in this newly discovered population took a new turn as Johnson began to investigate the various programs provided by Special Olympics. One was Healthy Athletes, which helps athletes improve their training and competition by focusing on overall health and fitness.
“It was serendipity,” Johnson says. “They were in the process of recruiting Health Promotion volunteers and looking for a new Health Promotion clinical director. I volunteered at the Special Olympics Fall Tournament 2008 to get an idea of the program and received first-hand interaction with the athletes, learned strategies to ask assessment questions and received guidance on health education activities in the Health Promotion discipline – nutrition, physical activity, bone health, sun safety and tobacco-use/secondhand smoke prevention.”
After committing to at least three years as clinical director for Special Olympics North Carolina, Johnson began recruiting and training (medical, public health, nursing and allied health) volunteers to conduct Global Health Assessment Screenings at spring, summer and fall tournaments.
She also served as a Global Health volunteer at the 2009 World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, helping with health screenings for 595 of more than 2,200 participating athletes from nearly 100 countries.
Through Johnson’s efforts, FirstHealth Community Health Services has enhanced its recruitment and tobacco-prevention activities by offering carbon monoxide screenings to Special Olympics athletes, coaches and families; expanding its Healthy Living classes to other programs serving people with intellectual disabilities; and developing an ongoing relationship with Moore County Special Olympics.
In addition to the Healthy Living classes it offers to athletes and the CPR training it provides to coaches and volunteers, FirstHealth contributes to Special Olympics by encouraging its employees to volunteer, donating water to events, and promoting and supporting Special Olympics activities in the community.
In October 2011, FirstHealth Community Health Services presented its work with the Special Olympics population at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. For Johnson, who will travel to New Orleans in April to be a presenter at a program called “Break-Free Alliance: Promising Practices to Eliminate Tobacco-Related Disparities: The Power of Communities,” the Special Olympics partnership has become personal.
“Serving as a Healthy Athletes clinical director has been one of my most rewarding volunteer experiences,” she says. “It is a feel-good role. It gives me access several times a year to events and people that truly lift the spirits. It’s a joy to work with my volunteers and interact with the athletes. Smiles, laughs and positive energy are contagious at Special Olympics games.”
Anyone interested in helping with Special Olympics (volunteering or making donations) can call Robin Sheffield at (910) 690-5869. For more information on the various services provided by FirstHealth Community Health Services, call (877) 342-2255.