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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

Sound Health: Study looks at how a community can impact a child’s health

Child throwing candy on parade float
Emily Bollinger
A child tosses candy at the Bloomington Labor Day parade on Sept. 6, 2021.

The director of a long-term health study in a small community in Texas says the study's findings may offer lessons for educators and public health officials everywhere about how a child’s environment is a leading factor in determining their health.

Darla Castelli is a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas. She is leading a 10-year study of the small unincorporated community of Del Valle, Texas just outside of Austin. Castelli will deliver a lecture via Zoom at 6 p.m. Wednesday for Illinois State University’s Esther Larson McGinnis Scholar Lecture.

In this edition of Sound Health, Castelli said the “Whole Communities, Whole Health” study has determined a lack of access to a grocery store, or to health care are big barriers for the mostly Spanish-speaking community.

Darla Castelli
Christina S. Murrey/Christina S. Murrey
Portrait of Darla Castelli in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Castelli said the next phase of the study will closely track up to 300 families in Del Valle for five years to see where other health barriers may exist. She said the study involves closely tracking families with Fitbits to monitor their physical activity and using household sensors to measure air quality, allergens and ventilation.

The study differs from other scholarly work on children’s health because of how it engages families to give direct input. “Most of the time it’s about the scholar’s expertise,” she said.

Participating families also will be equipped with an online app they can use to report potential problems, such as a playground with broken glass, she said. “We can GPS map it and then we can actually put that information in the hands of individuals who can act on that information and then maybe that family can engage in physical activity in a safe place.”

Castelli said the initial stages of the study involved community surveys and conversations. The next phase of the study involves collecting data over a five-year period that will help guide educators and government and community leaders to make changes in various ways to improve community health.

“It might be who comes and inspects the wastewater treatment plant and then the frequency of those inspections,” Castelli said. “I can’t anticipate what the change will be, we are just hopeful there will be change.”

She said the earlier stages of the study have shown how disparities in available technology can impact health. “Sometimes we think about, ‘Why aren’t families physically active?’ Maybe they didn’t have access to the information that suggested that (for example) there’s a soccer tournament over here, there’s greenspace over there or there’s that family fun wellness evening at the school,” Castelli said.

The pandemic has widened the digital divide, she said, noting that children who didn’t have high-speed reliable internet at home had a tougher time at school. She said study leaders worked with internet providers and the schools to deliver mobile hot spots to serve those families.

Castelli said study, which may not be completed until 2028 but reports ongoing findings annually, can provide a model for other communities to address public health in children.

“Although there will be a need for some customization based upon the specific concerns of the community, our hope and desire is that it can transcend communities and be used by other scholars,” Castelli said.

Registration for the lecture is available here.

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