- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2009

At Geri Spears’ table at the Beltsville Community Center in Maryland, you can throw small sheep into buckets and earn a prize. Danielle Balsam and Jen Shapiro hand out pocket-sized food-portion guides at their booth. And Meredith Zanelotti gives out a free sample of dark chocolate, while Khaleila Iwuoha performs a free blood-pressure screening at their table.

All are students in the Principles of Community Health I class taught by Sharon M. Desmond at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Every semester, Ms. Desmonds students put on public health fairs at locations in the community.

The first of this academic year occurred Thursday at the Beltsville Community Center. Ms. Desmonds other section of this class will put on another health fair at Gwendolyn Britt Senior Activity Center in Brentwood on Nov. 10.

Usually , students have the whole semester to work on their projects, Ms. Desmond said. This year, however, the students had only six weeks to complete their projects.

“This is rushed,” Ms. Desmond said, “Beltsville wanted us to do it now so they could do the flu shots. Usually, we have 15 weeks.”

Last year, the health fair was able to give out 200 flu shots, but because of poor weather, the numbers were down last week.

Joe Fuchs, treasurer of the Beltsville Recreation Council, said flu shots were the original impetus for the health fair. But the council wanted to figure out “what we could do for seniors and the community, in terms of a health program,” he said. “We had flu shots, and thats it.”

So six years ago, Mr. Fuchs approached Ms. Desmond at the university and she agreed to help. “It grew out of wanting to have flu shots, and it expanded,” Mr. Fuchs said. “Its really turned out to be quite a community event.”

Now the flu shots are just one small part of the health fair.

Also in the gym at the community center on Thursday were representatives from the Lions Club conducting hearing tests, Golds Gym staffers signing up new members and the Prince Georges Police Department offering safety tips. In the center of all the activity, however, were the student projects.

“Students talk to community members about their health issues, hold focus groups and look at data,” Ms. Desmond said. “Then they choose their topics.”

They also speak to key community leaders, area doctors and focus groups to determine which issues are affecting those likely to attend the health fair.

After choosing a topic, students conduct research, create a display and prepare materials to distribute at the fair. Many try to incorporate interactive components to draw people in or to make the issue more relevant to someone’s daily life.

Ms. Zanelotti, a junior at Maryland, and Ms. Iwuoha, a senior, were kept very busy by the number of visitors to pass through their booth, which focused on heart disease - the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. The two took blood-pressure readings, handed out gift bags with information geared toward women and administered a heart-health quiz to test the knowledge of event patrons about what they can do to manage their health.

“A lot of people are shocked to find out about heart-healthy foods,” said Ms. Zanelotti, adding that she emphasized that dark chocolate and almonds can be good for cardiovascular health when eaten in moderation. She also said the participants “seem genuinely interested in learning about heart-healthy habits.”

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