Project Aspire Health Career Training

Why are several hundred kindergarteners walking around PS 197 in Central Harlem wearing white coats and stethoscopes? An even more intriguing question to the adults who interact with these pint-sized, future doctors is where do they get all of that enthusiasm? Two words – Project Aspire.

The mission of “Project Aspire” as explained by the executive director of the foundation that started it, Stephen Phillips, is to encourage the health care aspirations of students whose social, economic or educational circumstances may challenge the fulfillment of their dreams. The coats and stethoscopes came from “Operation Lab Coat.” This is not just another dress-up game that cute little kids are playing instead of studying the three R’s. It is an early childhood component of “Project Aspire” and its effect among these children is nothing less than magical.

As a part of “Operation Lab Coat,” members of the neighborhood health community serve as role models to inspire these children, at this early age, to pursue a quality education, develop healthy lifestyle behaviors and work toward a rewarding health-related career, especially as physicians. The kids get their own fitted lab coats and authentic stethoscopes and they participate in special assemblies, classroom activities and educational field trips.

The launching of “Project Aspire” occurred in conjunction with the opening of the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Central Harlem in 2007. It is Touro College’s Children’s Health Education Foundation that created “Project Aspire” and “Operation Lab Coat.”

The positive impact of opening the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and launching this one-of-a-kind kindergarten program in Central Harlem was not lost on national leaders such as U.S. Representative and current chair of the House Ways and Means committee, Charles Rangel. He was on hand at the official opening ceremony at the legendary Apollo Theatre and praised Renardo Wright, principle of PS 197, and the leaders of Touro College for serving the historically underserved neighborhood.

While more and more kids, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade are getting involved with “Project Aspire” and its health-career programs, the foundation that manages this effort has taken on another important concern for residents of Harlem and Bronx neighborhoods – Stroke Prevention. Once again, the enthusiasm of the kids involved is palpable.

Medical experts have noted that stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the United States and is the third leading cause of death, after cancer and heart disease. It is one of the most catastrophic medical events and ironically one of the most preventable and treatable. The drug that is approved for stroke victims – “tissue plasminogen activator” (t-PA) – can potentially reverse all of the disability from the stroke if it is given within 3 hours of the onset of the symptoms.

The other challenge in dealing with victims of strokes lies in a lack of understanding of the symptoms of the disease. There are five primary symptoms of stroke and medical experts estimate that less than half of the population knows these symptoms.

This was of course before the kids in “Project Aspire” got on the case.

On April 7, 2009, the kids in “Project Aspire,” the Harlem Hospital and the National Stroke Association got together with about 800 friends to promote stroke prevention and early detection. The location for this celebration and healthy living pep rally was the Bronx High School for Medical Science on East 172nd Street. On a cool day in New York, the auditorium was smoking with the enthusiasm that only kids can generate. At the end of the day, these little kids in lab coats and teenagers in scrubs had thoroughly rocked the place.

The entire auditorium was packed with “Project Aspire” kids and they were there with the express purpose of raising a healthy ruckus. They demonstrated for all in attendance just how important getting daily exercise is, how critical a healthy diet is, how even the youngest kid can help save a life of a stroke victim.

With all of this call-and-response, high energy, non-stop bop, the hit of the day was a man whose seemingly quiet demeanor belied the fact that he is a motivational speaker of the highest order. When someone whose conservative attire and serene expression – someone who looks like he could be the father of one of these kids – stands in front of 500+ completely energized kids and says a few words and there is an immediate quiet in the auditorium, you know you are in the presence of someone whom these kids would follow anywhere.

He could only be the “Hip Hop Doc” – Doctor Olajide Williams.

Turns out, in addition to being an Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology at Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Williams has an animated role (literally and figuratively) in a very interesting stoke detection video program which he founded called “Hip Hop Stoke.” This animated music video was produced by the Touro College’s Education Foundation in conjunction with Harlem Hospital Center and the National Stroke Association.

The main components of the animated show are rap songs, composed and performed by a well-known rap artist, Doug E. Fresh, and cartoons. The primary goal is to inform and inspire children to learn the signs of a stroke, take the correct course of action (“call 911, cause it ain’t no joke!”) and teach stroke prevention through lifestyle modification. This means getting more physical activity and making better nutritional choices

When the “Hip Hop Doc” related a true story about a 4th grader whose quick thinking and action saved a woman who was having a stroke at a subway station, there was complete silence in the auditorium that seconds before had been rocking and rolling with squeals from these kids. Now, any time that one of these kids happens to notice someone who might be experiencing a stroke, the neurons in that kid’s brain will be firing at warp speed.

There is an understandable tendency for those of us who care about the effectiveness of public education to sometimes cast aspersions on the schools, administrators and even teachers. The drop out rate is too high. The test scores at too low. There are indeed, lots of problems associated with the public schools in the large cities and small towns in the United States.

However, if you need a little jolt of what positive things are possible in public schools, you might want to visit PS 197 in Harlem or the Bronx High School for Medical Science. Or, even better, you might want to give Stephen Phillips at “Project Aspire” a call (212.242.4668 ext. 6046) or send him an email ([email protected]).

He’s used to questions, usually from smart, little kids with lab coats on and stethoscopes around their necks. He’ll say the same thing that the hundreds of kids said in unison during the stroke prevention assembly when they were asked if they can succeed “Yes we can!”