In 2003, Marian Uhlman, then a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Susan Spencer, a second-grade teacher, launched a collaboration at an Upper Darby elementary school.
Called Healthy NewsWorks, the program sought to address health issues and childhood reading problems by transforming students into young journalists.
Nearly 20 years later, the program has grown and adapted. Students in more than three dozen schools in Delaware County, Montgomery County, Philadelphia, and even Camden have gotten a chance to become health reporters.
Uhlman is now the executive director of Healthy NewsWorks.
“We started as an exclusively print newspaper project, but over the years, we’ve evolved and also now have a digital presence,” Uhlman said.
She added that the students have taken away from the experience the skills needed for quality journalism.
“From how to research, how to interview, how to present yourself, how to write — but they also learned confidence, and teamwork, and how to work with other people on deadlines and challenging topics,” Uhlman said. “The biggest lesson for them too, is that their words matter and that they are doing something for the community. It’s a service project and I think that gives them a lot of pride within their communities.”
The theme for this year’s coverage was healing.
The topic was reflected in the stories that the children wrote. Students reported on the benefits of spending time in nature as well as the perks of mindfulness and meditation.
They even covered how participating in certain activities like art and music can have therapeutic properties.
After the pandemic began in 2020, Healthy NewsWorks added another layer to its program: an annual filmmaking project.
“Our newest project is a short 20- to 25-minute film called “How We Heal” and its students who have been researching this topic all year, have reported and interviewed experts about ways to heal,” Uhlman said. “As part of the project, they also worked on a book, also by the title of ‘How We Heal.’”
Healthy NewsWorks held its 2022 Film and Book Fest on the evening of May 18, at the Merion Tribute House in Merion Station.
Attendees got the chance to meet some of the student reporters and see their work firsthand.
Meet the Philly-area student reporters showing us ‘How We Heal’
Jaxson Pointer, 10, of Global Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, was one of the news anchors on the film project. He became involved with Healthy NewsWorks when he was just eight years old through his church, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“I’ve always been a fan of writing. And when I heard about Healthy NewsWorks, it said we could interview people and I like to speak in front of a crowd,” Jaxson said. “And I like to interview people. And when we did interview people, everybody gave unique answers when we were practicing being a journalist, like I love writing.”
During the course of putting together the short film, Pointer and his fellow reporters gathered the facts by interviewing doctors, professors, psychiatrists, a ballet dancer, and even a Philadelphia Eagle, Jordan Malaita, to learn how young people can cope and heal.
“It was fun because I got to learn psychiatrists and doctors’ backstories. I myself want to become a doctor when I grow up,” Pointer said.
John Lambert, 9, attends Overlook Elementary School in Abington. He said his favorite food is pizza, he likes to play with his friends, and he really wants a pet Goldendoodle. Like Jaxson, John joined Healthy NewsWorks a few years ago through Enon.
“I really liked Healthy NewsWorks, because I really want to be a reporter,” John said.
Helping out with the projects this year was really exciting for him. He wrote a poem called “Mindfulness” that he got to read in the studio.
“It was fantastic, because we got to work together and I got to do a lot of art projects,” John said. “And I really liked that I got to work with other people. And we created a monthly news article called Healthy Warriors.”
He wanted to give “a big thank you” to the staff at Healthy NewsWorks for letting him feel what it’s like to be a reporter.
Katelynn Gibbs, 9, attends Gotwals Elementary School in Norristown. Her school is a participant in the news program. She has been a featured writer in her school’s newspaper. Katelynn was a news anchor for the production and had a lot of takeaways from this year’s project.
“For me, it was mostly what we learned. So it was like how to work a video camera and how to detail your writing. Small things like that made it very fun, because the tiniest things improved what I learned in school. Because in school, I knew most of it and it moved my grades up more than what I had before I started,” Katelynn said.
If she doesn’t become a future United States president, Katelynn said she wants to be a lawyer when she gets older, because she loves to research different topics and hear arguments.
“When you do law school, you get a better chance at becoming president — well, you kind of have to do law school actually. So I really want to be president when I’m older,” Katelynn said.
‘How We Heal’ production inspired by 70s classics
Rodney Whittenberg works as a consultant for Healthy NewsWork. Inspired by the children’s shows of the 1970s like Zoom and Sesame Street, he came up with the idea of doing a kids’ news program like the spirit of the ones he grew up watching.
He talked to Uhlman about the idea and they got to work.
“This is a full-blown production, and I’m the director, producer, sound mixer, musician, composer, editor,” Wittenberg said.
He has a history of working with nonprofits and he credits Healthy NewsWorks for already having a strong foundation that allowed for the seamless addition of video production.
All it needed was a little augmenting and suddenly the students had more than enough material for background video.
“We wanted everything to authentically come from the kids. So we had them, as they were doing their interviews and they’re writing out their interviews, particularly for the book and for the newspaper, we also asked them to think about what that would look like visually. And so, they came up with all these drawings that related to the interviews that they were doing,” Wittenberg said.
He called the students brilliant, but he expected nothing less. Wittenberg has always believed that young people can do amazing things, if given “the space and the opportunity and the resources to do it.”
Wittenberg saw firsthand that the students were taking their jobs seriously. They had excellent follow-up questions. Wittenberg described it as powerful.
“It’s a real news program with real information that is important to how all of us heal. It’s not just for kids, adults can learn from it as well,” he said. “And that is the thing I’m most proud of — that it actually speaks to everybody.”
For people interested in how they can heal, Uhlman said that they can visit the Healthy NewsWorks companion site to read the book. She encourages groups that would like to see the film to reach out.