Students Step Up

Health is Right School Program Starts Strong

Imagine a world where all people live healthy and decent lives. That is what many students throughout the Northern Virginia area are starting to do thanks to the efforts of the Health Is Right School Program. This Youth Teams project is another brainchild of Dr. Kavian Milani, whose Center for Health and Human Rights (CHHR) is the sponsor of the Youth Teams. CHHR has been featured in VivaTysons/Reston previously.

The idea is to empower middle and high school youth in the area to tackle challenging issues in their schools to improve the lives of people in their communities. The hope is to create a culture where a student can identify a problem and know that they have the power to fix it.

Teams of students meet on a regular basis to explore how they might impact their communities. They are asked to consider what one change would create healthier and better lives for the community. After brainstorming ideas, the teams figure out if they can turn that change into a service project. CHHR works with the school groups to turn their plans into reality, providing funding if needed, offering help with volunteers, and delivering a curriculum the students go through to better engage in human rights activities.

As such each group is at a different stage in their endeavor and each is working on a different social problem. For example, students at Fairfax High School founded their own non-profit organization, working with local foster children to help them finish high school. They found that graduation rates can be significantly lower for foster children so they meet monthly with those students to help them with studying skills, helping to improve reading, and working on test preparation skills. They also have connected with outside organizations to assist those students with other resources they may need such as donated clothing.

Another team at Mount Vernon High School is designing a program to provide food to “food insecure” students. They have already obtained a delivery truck and are now fundraising and running a food drive to supply the necessary food.

Marshall High School students have begun a program to make hygiene products readily available and more accessible to students. They are conducting a drive to place products where they are needed in the school.

At Yorktown High School, Christina Smith Gajadhar is an ESL teacher who has incorporated the Human Rights curriculum and project into one of her classes. The students decided to do a video to help educate others on the immigrant experience.

Ms. Smith Gajadhar reports, “An after-school program wouldn’t work here. Many students work or have other outside activities. I looked at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights curriculum and realized it fit well in conjunction with the literature we study like The Breadwinner and The Kiterunner.

“This program has provided an opportunity for the students to work together. They are learning about leadership and communications and how to work with each other. They have learned how to deal with kids who are not doing their part and they have learned what it means to be responsible to the group. The kids have responded well to the project as they end up thinking beyond themselves. At 14 years old, that is a difficult thing to do.” Their project finished in December and the final video is being promoted on the school website, via twitter, and the school’s daily news.

Health is Right Youth Programs started in May with just an idea and no participation. In six months it grew to 15 schools – two universities, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, two middle schools, and 11 high schools. Most are in Fairfax County with two in Arlington.  A program has also started at the International School in Langley Park, MD where the entire student body is comprised of immigrants and refugees.

Ron Lapitan is the director of the school program and is very enthusiastic about the Youth Teams and what they are working to achieve. “The value is in cultivating the student leaders’ power of expression to identify the kind of world they want to create. We have this belief that if you want to create a different kind of world, the first step is just being able to imagine it, then talk about it so that you can transfer that vision to other people.

“What inspired Dr. Milani to launch this program is his strong interest in creating a healthier community. It’s not just about establishing easier access to health care, but also developing a vibrant community where people are having conversations about what it means for people to be healthy and what it means for people to have human rights and then acting on those ideas.”

Milani and Lapitan would like to see the youth program expand nationwide. They already have participation at a school in Tampa. With Tampa’s having a large homeless population, the school’s team is looking to repurpose leftover food at restaurants each day to help feed the local homeless.

“We hope that as the program expands geographically it will also continue in existing schools indefinitely,” says Ron. “As students age up and eventually graduate, they will recruit younger students to take on other projects. Our hope is that we can help impact the values of youth throughout their lives, coming away from these teams with a spirit of service, serving humanity and making a better community for all.”

Jonathan Melendez is Prevention Coordination Specialist for the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services at Fairfax County. He adds his own perspective on the implementation of the Health Is Right Youth Program at FCPS middle schools:

“We view this as a great opportunity to provide youth across the county with the tools needed to identify and address concerns within their own communities. While this is a new partnership at the middle school level, Ron’s work with the high schools has been well received. Partnering with organizations that help empower youth, such as the Center for Health and Human Rights, is integral to the success of the Middle School After-School Program.”

Indeed the program “is designed to foster five conditions suggested by Fairfax County research on youth to greatly reduce risky behaviors including sex, alcohol use, drug use, smoking, carrying a weapon, and participating in gangs:

  • Having high personal integrity
  • Performing community service
  • Having teachers recognize good work
  • Having community adults to talk to
  • Participating in extracurricular activities

For more details on the program or to make a contribution, contact Ron Lapitan at The website is

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