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Taking a healthier position

Taking a healthier position

Amy Luke, PhD, a professor of public health at Loyola's Stritch School of Medicine, stops by the First Congregational Church in Maywood for an evening dance class. Through her involvement with the Maywood Fine Arts Association, Luke is able to help families learn about health and nutrition. (Photo: Natalie Battaglia)

Stritch School of Medicine

Maywood Fine Arts offers professor Amy Luke a forum for promoting nutrition and healthy living

By Erinn Connor

On a rainy weekday night, Amy Luke, PhD, stops by First Congregational Church in Maywood, just a block down from the Maywood Fine Arts Association headquarters. In a large auditorium, dozens of girls in leotards and tutus chatter excitedly. Every so often a bell would ding, as the kids dropped spare change into a bank collecting donations for a new dance studio. The old Maywood Fine Arts studio burned down in a fire in 2010 and the association is now fundraising for a new space with their “Raising the Barre” campaign. 

Luke, a professor of public health sciences at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, greets Taiyana Shurn, the dance instructor who was once a student herself. Parents poke their heads in the door as they drop their kids off, saying hello to both Luke and Lois Baumann, who founded the organization with her husband, Ernie. The two women stand in the wings as Shurn starts playing a Disney soundtrack and the kids start going through the basic ballet positions.

Baumann and Luke weave through the rows of kids, correcting their poses and making sure toes are properly pointed. Pictures of dancers past and present hang on the walls of the auditorium, showing just how many kids have gone through the doors of Maywood Fine Arts and been affected by the time Luke, Baumann, and others have invested in the community.

At the forefront of this involvement is Luke, a professor at Loyola for 22 years whose simple curiosity started the empowerment of a community. Luke and her husband, Carter, a jazz musician, saw a group of kids performing tumbling routines in Oak Park. They were impressed by the performance and tracked down the name of the group—the kids were part of the Maywood Fine Arts Association.

Since that encounter, Luke and her husband have been heavily involved in the growth of Maywood Fine Arts. She’s served on the board of directors since 2001 and her husband teaches music lessons to the children. Her son Miles now participates in those same tumbling classes she first saw in Oak Park.

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Addressing community health disparities is one of the four priorities of Loyola's "Plan 2020: Building a More Just, Humane, and Sustainable World." Read more about the University's strategic plan here.

She’s constantly checking in on the association’s different programs. Luke sees them from two perspectives, as a Maywood resident and a public health researcher. Maywood Fine Arts offers opportunities in an area that is nearly desolate of creative outlets. It also gives them the chance to be active and healthy when their circumstances don’t automatically allow that lifestyle.

“Living here and understanding the challenges has helped inform my work with the association as well as my research,” Luke says. “I’ve gotten to know the people and understand what they want for themselves and their kids.”

As she continued working with Maywood Fine Arts, she noticed the lack of nutritional and healthy lifestyle knowledge by the kids and their families. “You start to notice things like Maywood doesn’t have a grocery store, that there are a lot of single-parent homes, that the kids just didn’t know what healthy foods were,” Luke says. “My research work is focused on chronic diseases—obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, which a lot of these kids were at risk for.”

Luke has helped implement many fitness and healthy living initiatives that feed into her research interests. With the help of other public health faculty and students, she’s started cooking classes and created a community garden. Maywood was also a recruitment site for a study she worked on looking at the high rates of elevated high blood pressure in African Americans.

Beginning in 2009, she was a co-principal investigator with David Shoham, PhD, on the Modeling Obesity Through Simulation (MOTS) project. This National Institutes of Health grant involved untangling the many complicated factors of childhood obesity and how they feed into each other. For example, disadvantaged communities have a lack of grocery stores, a large number of fast food restaurants, and a lack of physical activity options. These are all prominent in Maywood and the surrounding neighborhoods, and these factors were an important part of the study. This is where Maywood Fine Arts comes in to combat a lot of these issues. It serves nearly 1,000 students in their classes, and their families are 72 percent African American and 22 percent Hispanic. For some of these kids, it’s the only extracurricular activity they’re involved in.

Luke is determined to integrate Loyola into the community by recruiting medical and public health students to help with her research and make fitness a big focus of the association.

Loyola’s Institute of Public Health received a grant in early 2015 to develop and test a Family-based Lifestyle Intervention Program (FLIP) for low-income African American and Hispanic and Latino families. The program will promote the adoption of healthy lifestyles. It involves monthly meetings with families; quarterly health assessments that measure weight, blood pressure, and fitness levels; and monthly cooking and fitness workshops. Because of the funding, researchers will be able to examine the long-term effects over seven to 10 years, rare in a health study focusing on low-income families.

“Getting the community engaged with nutrition and healthy activity will always be a central pillar of what Loyola is doing in Maywood and at the association,” Luke says. “I’m hoping to gradually recruit more students and faculty into research opportunities in Maywood as we continue to add more programs.”

The 37-year-old nonprofit welcomes Luke’s help with open arms and hopes Loyola continues to be involved in their backyard in the years to come. “When we started Maywood Fine Arts, we wanted to do something right by the kids and families in a city that never really got back on its feet,” Baumann says. “If we don’t have people like Amy Luke finding us and getting involved, we certainly don’t stand a chance of sticking around and making a long-term difference for these kids.”

As the music winds down at the First Congregational Church, the kids finish their warmup and are bouncing around, full of energy.

“Good work ladies and gentlemen!” Luke claps, the kids smiling from ear to ear. “That was beautiful!”

“She’s been one of our largest advocates and a guiding star for Maywood Fine Arts,” says Baumann, watching Luke and the kids with a grin. “She believes in the kids and the opportunities we offer them.

Read more stories about members of the Stritch community working to address health disparities