When Sheree Vodicka first heard of legislation passed in California to establish healthy out-of-school time (OST) programs, she realized there may be an opportunity to replicate that in North Carolina. As a recipient of the YMCA of the USA’s Pioneering Healthier Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she and her North Carolina Alliance of YMCAs colleagues had committed to improving the health of children statewide through implementation of the National AfterSchool Association’s Healthy Eating & Physical Activity (HEPA) Standards. Listening to colleagues at the Y and other OST programs, the team began exploring how a recognition program might provide incentive for adoption of the HEPA Standards.
"Through my experience of working with schools on nutrition and physical activity standards over the years," said Vodicka, "we had success when we created opportunities for schools to be recognized publicly for their efforts. If it would work in public schools, why wouldn’t the same work for out-of-school-time programs?”"
In order to get buy-in on the HEPA Standards in North Carolina, Vodicka knew that there would need to be adjustments to the California bill language to fit the goals and needs of North Carolina. Vodicka used her and her organization's experience with N.C. politics to draft bill language that was more likely to pass, while maintaining a commitment to high standards and best practices. Vodicka met with lawmakers initially and learned that a cost-free policy would be most conducive to passage within the General Assembly. Having the policy administered through a partnership between the North Carolina Division of Public Health and the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs would also make more lawmakers comfortable with the bill. Vodicka also knew that the bill language needed to consider all of the other work completed over the past 20 years by stakeholders and peers to ensure that children in licensed childcare and public schools had access to healthy food and physical activity.
With this in mind, Vodicka convened 50 stakeholders, including the Public Health Law Center (PHLC), the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs, OST practitioners, health care professionals, health nonprofits, and state government officials, among others. During a daylong workshop, the stakeholders discussed research conducted by the PHLC on existing HEPA-related regulations in early childhood care and OST within North Carolina. The group ultimately determined that a voluntary recognition program based on the HEPA Standards made sense, and they agreed to take action. A coalition was born.
“This was not an effort led solely by me or the [North Carolina Alliance of YMCAs],” Vodicka said, stressing the value provided by the coalition of stakeholders. “It was the result of lots of meetings and conversations gathering the input of many organizations who had an interest in this topic, finding our common interests, and working together to craft the right bill language.”
Ultimately, the policy crafted came in the form of a recognition program, in which afterschool programs voluntarily adopt the HEPA Standards, renamed the Healthy Out-of-School-Time (HOST) Standards for the purposes of the legislation, as well as best practices proven to support their implementation in youth-serving organizations.
As Vodicka and her allies took to the North Carolina legislature to advocate for their policy, they found that many policymakers were interested in out-of-school time policy, as well as very amenable to the idea of a policy that improved health standards for OST programs. Many legislators had a connection to a major provider of OST programming, such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and were willing to hear how the programs could support children’s health and wellness. In just two years, Vodicka and her team successfully advocated to pass the legislation when lawmakers added the policy language to the state's appropriations bill in 2016.
Vodicka credits some of the coalition’s success to the positive relationships many legislators already had with OST providers, such as the YMCA. According to her, direct outreach from YMCA CEOs to state-level legislators "helped till the soil, so that we were able to drop the seeds."
Another key to successfully pushing through this legislation was demonstrating to lawmakers that there was a significant parent involvement component to the policy. Under the North Carolina legislation, parents are responsible for holding the state-recognized programs accountable to the HOST standards to which they've publicly committed themselves. While this aspect was appealing to legislators and helpful for passing the policy, Vodicka also stresses to like-minded advocates the importance of making parent voices a part of the advocacy process.
"Advocates should really focus on how they can get parents at the table," said Vodicka. "I would suggest getting more recommendations from parents at outset, and [consider different ways] to get more parents involved with their respective programs. How to get parents to know, or care... that's something I would really emphasize if I could do it over again."
Not only has Vodicka and her team successfully passed this measure, but they’ve taken steps to bring this policy into implementation. With the help of Alliance for a Healthier Generation, North Carolina OST providers can access tools, resources and telephonic technical assistance that will equip them to achieve HOST recognition. The application process is promoted on the Eat Smart, Move More NC website.
If you're interested in learning more about Vodicka's advocacy or how your program can achieve North Carolina's HOST recognition, you can find more information here.
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