Magic really does exist! Over the years I have been fortunate to see both the ups and downs in the world of school health promotion. Yes, the downs can be discouraging, frustrating and leave us wanting to throw in the towel, but the ups remind us of the wonderful things that can be achieved through collaboration and perseverance. One of the many great aspects of my job, is the ability to be a catalyst—to promote and share my passion with those joining the world of employee wellness. That said, I find an even greater and more fulfilling aspect is learning from the magic that others create and their passion to inspire me.
I was ever so fortunate to be invited to participate in a recent event put on by Elk Island Catholic Schools. I couldn't begin to think of the right words to describe this opportunity for their school staff—awesome doesn’t even come close. And in order for you reading this, I wanted to make sure that you got a complete of a picture as I did. So I reached out to the woman behind it all—Alene Mutala, Religious Education Consultant of Elk Island Catholic Schools—to answer some key questions about how she made this magic happen!
Elk Island Catholic Regional Division #41 has 16 schools in the four communities of Camrose, Fort Saskatchewan, Vegreville and Sherwood Park/Strathcona County including approximately 700 staff members and 5,900 students.
When APPLE Schools started in 2007 they picked a school in our Division to be an APPLE School. We benefited from all of the activities, help and support they provided and this made us realize how important Health and Wellness was for our schools, staff and students.
As Religious Consultant, health and wellness has been under my portfolio for the past eight years. During this time, I’ve applied for and received health and wellness grants from the University of Alberta and these grants have allowed our school division to move forward and promote health and wellness for our staff and students in all of our communities.
Our vision is that each staff and student is part of our school community that is consistently strengthening its capacity to address the four pillars of wellness: Healthy Eating, Active Living, Positive School Behaviors and Healthy Relationships. It was through our goal to realize this vision that the idea for our Faith and Health and Wellness Day was born.
Can you tell me a bit about the Faith and Health and Wellness Day, the purpose behind it, the scope and how long you’ve been hosting it?
I worked with, and was supported by, Alberta Health Services and the County of Strathcona. This was our second staff Faith and Health and Wellness Day for our Division and this year we hosted it on Friday, March 4. Our goal for this day was promoting Spiritual, Emotional, Physical and Social Well Being for all of our staff including support, custodians, maintenance and our bus drivers.
Our day started with a Mass at OLPH Catholic Church, then a health break. Then we had faith and spiritual presentation by guest faith speakers from Los Angeles. The guest speakers also made faith presentations to Grade 6 -12 students in all four of our communities during the earlier part of the week.
In the afternoon, I had organized 33 sessions promoting health and wellness at a handful of locations in Strathcona County. Some of these sessions ran once, some ran twice during our two time slots from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. and 2:15 – 3:15 p.m.
This is a large undertaking. How did you secure buy-in from leadership for this event? How did you demonstrate the value of it?
My Superintendent and Trustees have been supportive of health and wellness promotion for the past eight years. They realize how important it is to keep our staff physically and emotionally well so they can be successful in their work with our students. My Superintendent has given me a small budget to pay for presenters and purchase gifts.
We did a staff survey after our first Faith and Health and Wellness Day in 2015 and the staff reported that they felt valued and appreciated that we were doing something special for them.
How were you able to pull it off? What kinds of resources did you have to draw from (internally or externally) and how did you ensure they remained engaged in the process?
It takes a lot of organization, planning and time to host an event like this. Early in the process, I sent an email out to all staff to see if anyone was interested in presenting their gifts or talents with the staff. I only had six staff offer their services. I can understand this as this is their Health and Wellness Day and they need rest as well.
I personally phoned and emailed all the presenters and asked if they would run sessions for us and then followed up again after our online registration. Some presenters charged a fee and others did their sessions for free. I made sure that all presenters received a hand written thank you card from Elk Island Catholic Schools and a Tim Hortons gift card.
I met with representatives from Alberta Health Services and Strathcona County to talk about what went well last year and use any suggestions they had for this year. I also used the feedback from our staff survey and our group of school health champion teachers. I asked for support from our tech department for the online registration as I did not know how to do this. They helped input all the sessions and information, assisted with any issues or concerns that came up during registration and were on hand during the event to support presenters with their technology requirements.
One of our teachers runs a leadership group at the high school and he had the students meet and greet the presenters and take them to their assigned rooms. Then the students greeted the staff as they came in and provided directions or took them to their sessions. This was a wonderful touch and these students were rewarded with a pizza lunch.
How did you choose which sessions to offer? Was there input from staff?
When I planned the first Faith and Health and Wellness Day last year, I brainstormed all the sessions that I thought would be great for the staff and then I met with our group. We discussed what we thought would work for staff and talked about those we knew or could help contact to be presenters.
In addition, after our first Faith and Health and Wellness Day, we asked for feedback and suggestions through a staff survey. Along with that feedback, I also had the registration lists for each session and used these to email one or two of the participants to ask for personal feedback about the presenter and session.
I also think it’s important to keep your ear to the ground. You’ll often hear about interesting presenters or topics that might promote health and wellness for staff during networking opportunities.
What is the general reception or feedback from staff, anecdotal or otherwise?
The feedback from last year’s Faith and Health and Wellness Day was extremely positive and the staff was very grateful that a day had been organized to support their health and wellness. They asked that we have a similar event for this year. The personal feedback this year was awesome. The staff were relaxed, happy and smiling and visiting with their colleagues. The staff that came out of the art classes were carrying their projects and proudly showing them to me. One even gave me her picture she painted and wrote a thank you note on it to thank me for the great day! Another staff member came out of a Taize Prayer session and said that it was so good she wished she had gone to both sessions of it.
So, what’s next? How do you evaluate your efforts and apply those learnings to future wellness events?
We’ve already started planning for next year’s event! I will take the information from the surveys and feedback I receive and then have another meeting with the amazing team and begin again.
In Elk Island Catholic Schools Division we have made a commitment to promote health and wellness for our staff and students. One of our strategies is to have this Faith and Health and Wellness Day every year. This will ensure the sustainability of our health and wellness project for years to come.
What is the single most important piece of advice you’d like to share with others who are contemplating a similar event?
I don’t think there’s just one thing but rather a combination of many. This is a very big undertaking for a school division to run, so I think it’s critical to have one individual who is engaged in staff health and wellness that is a designated as point person to oversee the event as a whole.
It’s just as important to have the support of your Trustees and Superintendent and of course staff who are willing and able to help and are engaged promoters of health and wellness. Find people to network with and listen to feedback—your event will be better (and easier) for it!
It is a big job, but the end result is more than worth the work. Our staff’s wellness matters and is a vital component to the success of our healthy school community.