TOPSHAM, Maine — When students in the Topsham area buy lunch at their school cafeteria, the first thing they see is a salad bar. When it’s time to pay, they find bags of carrots for sale at the cash register.
Maine SAD 75 school health coordinator Mary Booth, who recently was named the 2012 School Health Coordinator of the Year by the American School Health Association, made both of those things happen.
Teaching kids to eat healthy diets, get enough sleep or speak up when they’re being bullied are life-long lessons that unfold in places ranging from the dinner table to health class and beyond, butaccording to Booth, success usually comes from the culmination of dozens of small victories, such as putting carrots at the cash register.
Booth, one of 32 school health coordinators in Maine whose positions were imperiled by budget cuts by the Legislature earlier this year, received national acclaim last week for being the association’s 2012 School Health Coordinator of the Year.
“It’s about layering,” said Booth of her job, which was saved despite the budget cuts, thanks to the school district and community organizations. “Good health is critical to supporting everything else.”
Booth, of North Yarmouth, has been the full-time school health coordinator for MSAD 75 in the Topsham area for 12 years. Her position has been preserved for the moment, according to Jaki Ellis, co-chairwoman of the local Access Health Community Advisory Council, because the school district was able to find savings within its budget, and other community organizations have chipped in most of the rest. Now Booth works with otherschools and health-promoting organizations.
As the school health coordinator, Booth spearheaded programs designed to reduce tobacco use, substance abuse and bullying, and encouraged daily physical activity — all students in the district have at least 12 minutes of active time built into their daily schedules. She also helped institute healthy vending machine choices and staff programs that have produced a marked improvement on health markers such as high blood pressure. She worked with school nurses, teachers and the school board, and forged ties with local hospitals and the ACCESS Health Healthy Maine Partnership. Booth said her approach has always been to promote healthy living by casting her net of influence wide in order to make sure efforts across a range of venues are coordinated.
“My role is really a catalyst,” she said. “It’s about enabling the entire system to move forward together.”
A major reason for Booth’s award, according to Ellis, was that her work resulted in MSAD 75 being the only school system in Maine to receive state-level excellence awards in all eight areas of school health promoted by the Department of Health and Human Services, including health education, health services, physical and social environments.
As part of a budget bill enacted in June, the Legislature cut about $2.7 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is supported by Maine’s share of a class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. The cuts, which were part of a package to close an $83 million budget shortfall in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, resulted in a 100 percent cut in funding for the state’s 32 school health coordinators.
According to Ellis, the fact that the cuts were enacted in June as schools were closing for the summer and finalizing their budgets for the 2012-13 school year made it difficult for most schools to find funding to continue the programs.
“I would say that there are about a dozen school systems that have found a way to keep people on at least half-time,” said Ellis. “A lot of people have really made a valiant effort in this difficult situation.”
Booth, who holds a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition and a master’s degree in human development, both from the University of Maine, said the silver lining is that her role has transitioned to working on a more communitywide basis.
“Healthy students make better learners, and better learners eventually make better community members,” said Booth on Monday. “I’m a little surprised and humbled about this recognition. I’m just here doing my work every day and trying to make a difference.”
District Superintendent Brad Smith said Booth’s determination has paid off for her personally, but perhaps even more so for students.
“We are very proud of Mary, as we are of all the school health coordinators in Maine,” said MSAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith. “She has helped us to make tremendous gains in promoting the health of students, which is the key to their educational success.”