EmPoWER (Encouraging Prevention With Education and Resources) Somerset, Somerville, New Jersey


Demographic Snapshot

Somerville, NJ

The name “Somerville” was taken from four brothers from County Cork, Ireland.

Home of Paul Robeson, actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, and civil rights activist

Total population: 12,098

65.64% White/Caucasian
12.15% Black/African American
11.37% Asian American
0.34% American Indian
23.75% Hispanic/Latino of any race

Median household income: $69,836

The population of small town Somerville, New Jersey, is fairly diverse. EmPoWER (Encouraging Prevention With Education and Resources) Somerset—the lead organization for the Central Jersey Coordinated School Health Program—offers programs for people of all ages to assist them—through education, collaboration, and linking to resources—in making positive lifestyle choices. Youth in the central New Jersey area took part in one MSY Program session for free at a Middle Earth after-school program (held at Smalley Middle School, Bound Brook). Middle Earth is a 21st Century learning program that serves students in fourth grade through entering eighth grade from Bound Brook and South Bound Brook. EmPoWER also offered two MSY sessions at the Somerville YMCA—both as an after-school program and a 6-day intensive spring break program. The Somerville YMCA setting offered a swimming pool, fitness center with exercise equipment, gymnasium, and classrooms.

Kristen Schiro, school health specialist and MSY Program coordinator, used multiple tactics to recruit community partners and participants for the MSY Program. She had a discussion with the YMCA CEO; made a presentation to local middle schools with Coordinated School Health Programs, published an announcement in EmPoWER’s newsletter, reached out to Girl Scout troops, and sent MSY Program information to middle schoolers and their parents via emails and flyers sent home in students’ backpacks. Ms. Schiro offered a gift card raffle to encourage youth attendance at meetings to promote the program. Nurses also referred youth who they thought could benefit from nutrition and physical activity lessons.


EmPoWER Somerset assists individuals and families with making positive lifestyle choices and fosters healthy, drug-free communities through education, collaboration, and linkages to resources.

Ruth Prothero, school health specialist for EmPoWER Somerset, facilitated two sessions of the MSY Program. Both groups of youth participants reflected Somerville’s racial/ethnic composition. With regard to gender demographics, the first group was composed of all girls (one boy had signed up for the session but dropped out) and the second group was composed of about two-thirds girls and one-third boys.

Program Implementation

Somerville YMCA After-School Program

During the Somerville YMCA weekly MSY sessions, students met for 2½ hours. Staff allotted 2 hours for MSY lessons, with the remaining time for extended physical activity. Students discussed ideas for the Big Production and voted on the form it would take during MSY lesson 9. Staff incorporated the Big Production into 1 hour of MSY lesson 10. The Somerville weekly group created brochures and posters reflecting what they learned during the course of the MSY Program. The facilitator worked with Repro, Inc., a print media production company, to professionally produce the brochures and posters. Staff gave each student copies of their work to distribute in their respective schools and communities.

Somerville YMCA Spring Break.

At the Somerville YMCA spring break, the MSY lessons were run for 3 hours a day over 6 consecutive days. Staff allotted each MSY lesson 2 hours, enabling plenty of extended physical activity time. Students discussed ideas for the Big Production and voted on the form it would take during MSY lesson 9. Staff incorporated the Big Production into 1 hour of MSY lesson 10. Spring break students worked in groups to produce short video vignettes, later shown to the larger group.

Middle Earth

At Smalley Middle School’s Middle Earth program, students created a short video on healthy eating. This site’s facilitator worked with Premiere Media, LLC to edit the video and then distributed the video to each MSY student. Students showed the video at a Middle Earth parent night.

EmPoWER Somerset featured MSY in its e-newsletter distributed to over 800 community members and partners in Somerset County.

Staff reported that while the MSY Program was easy to follow, it was labor intensive specifically with respect to preparing for Snack Breaks. They also said time management was an issue when administering the pre- and post-curriculum assessment surveys, fitting in activities within recommended time slots, and completing a lesson within 90 minutes. Because of limited time during session 10, staff did not administer the post-curriculum assessment surveys. Moreover, managing the group of students during the instructional components of the lessons was sometimes challenging as kids had difficulty focusing after having been in school all day.

Youth and Community Response to the Media-Smart Youth Program

The more the kids could be involved, the more engaged they were.”

Ruth Prothero, Facilitator

Youth especially liked the Snack Breaks; the grocery store trip; and being involved in the filming aspects.

Ms. Prothero reported that youth liked the Snack Breaks because they were able to put together their own snacks, including making their own wraps using fresh fruits and vegetables. They especially enjoyed the fruit tasting at the beginning of the MSY Program. Youth (especially the boys) also had fun participating in the Action Breaks, particularly the participants in the Somerville YMCA groups, as they had access to the swimming pool and gym.

The community reacted positively to the MSY Program. Staff reported how “the program was a great complement to the Coordinated School Health grant that EmPoWER Somerset oversees for the Central New Jersey region.”

Participants least enjoyed the media activities that involved writing blogs and paperwork. “The more the kids could be involved, the more engaged they were,” shared Ms. Prothero.

The Coordinated School Health program manager at the New Jersey Department of Health reported being excited to include MSY as a tool to encourage physical activity and healthy nutrition in schools. Directors at the MSY facilities have encouraged EmPoWER Somerset to continue the MSY Program in their organizations as a result of the “extremely positive response from parents and youth.”

Successes, Challenges, and Lessons Learned

Ms. Schiro had to adapt her original MSY Program implementation plan by switching from partnering with the Hillsborough YMCA to collaborating with the Somerville YMCA, because the Hillsborough YMCA had a limited number of students in the 10- to 13-year age range enrolled in the after-school program at the time. Other challenges included not having sufficient time to complete the Big Production on the last day or to integrate the pre- or post-curriculum assessment surveys during the first and last lessons, respectively. In fact, youth were “bored” on the first day when they ended up spending about 30 minutes completing the pre-curriculum assessment survey (it is estimated to take 15 minutes to complete). And there was no time left at the end of the program to complete the post-curriculum assessment survey.

In fact, Ms. Prothero did not have enough time to complete the Big Production during her first session of the 6-day spring break camp. Because of this, she changed the medium of the Big Production creation from video to print during her second weekly group (these participants developed a brochure and posters). The second group worked with a local woman who owns her own print media production company, Repro, Inc. This woman helped participants create the trifold and posters. Youth distributed the trifold and posters at libraries, schools, and the YMCA. Ms. Prothero commented, “The print media worked better. The kids enjoyed it and took something from it.”

With respect to other ways the MSY Program had to be adapted, Ms. Prothero had to adjust certain physical activities for students at lower levels of fitness. In addition, she had to modify snacks for youth with food allergies. Despite the challenge, kids really enjoyed the Snack Breaks and the grocery store trip. Facilitators reported that the kids loved walking to the store and being outside.

Recommendations for Future Implementations of the Program

Ms. Prothero’s greatest success was in the relationship she nurtured via email with the parents of MSY Program participants. She sent weekly updates to parents summarizing what their children had accomplished the prior week and plans for the next week’s activities. She received positive feedback from parents and believes that the MSY Program ran smoothly because of this parent buy-in and regular communication.

Ms. Schiro’s advice to future MSY Program coordinators and facilitators is to start working on the Big Production earlier and realize that it is challenging to complete the entire curriculum, as is, in 10 lessons over a 10-week period. Ms. Schiro suggested the possibility of adding an extra week with the cautionary note that youth may not be able to sustain interest for that period. She reflected, “Ten weeks may be too long—middle school-aged children began getting distracted toward the end, especially with repetitive concepts.”

Based on her experience facilitating the program, Ms. Prothero agreed that 10 weeks was “too long” and that the “repetitiveness of some of the material made it hard to keep the kids engaged.” She suggested condensing the MSY Program to 6 weeks and compensating by lengthening the time of each lesson. In conclusion, Ms. Prothero advised future facilitators to “really be prepared and think on your feet during the lessons” and “try to engage parents.” She added, “It helps if you’re an experienced teacher.”

Looking Ahead

Because EmPoWER Somerset was able to utilize matching funds from other sources, it will be able to sustain the MSY Program. EmPoWER Somerset is also exploring a fee-for-service model for a spring break camp during the 2013–2014 academic year.

EmPoWER Somerset continues to nourish its partnerships with YMCA and Middle Earth so that both organizations can continue to implement the MSY Program as a regular offering in their after-school programs.