The Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) Board of Trustees recently approved six grants totaling more than $1.3 million. In a first, one of the grants—up to $500,000—will be committed to engaging community organizations and teens in messaging that promotes healthy behaviors.

In the past, JHF has focused on issues such as aging and improving the delivery of primary and preventive care, but now the organization is targeting adolescents. “People know us best for our work (in those areas),” says Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO. “The more we thought about our efforts, the more we thought, ‘Maybe we should start at the beginning.'”

Feinstein and JHF believe that finding the right focus and the right partners for the grant funds will make an impact on the future of young people in the region. “Adolescent years are the risk-taking, dangerous years,” she says. “We want to get adolescents on the path to health before things go awry.”

To steer young people down this healthier path, JHF wants to focus on creative ideas that tap into both the minds of teens and the technology they’re using. And when it comes to subject matter, the sky is the limit: The organization is interested in all risk behaviors that are impacting adolescents, including anxiety and depression, STDs, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and unplanned pregnancies, to name a few.

The statistics in these areas are powerful, and as Feinstein puts it, “They stop you in your tracks.” For example, young people between the ages of 15 to 24 account for 50% of all new STDs. And, in an NIH survey, 38.7 percent of high school seniors reported using illicit drugs in the last year.

The first grant funded under the initiative will be provided to the Allegheny County Health Department, which will engage 15 youth between the ages of 13 and 19 as leaders in community health improvement. The initiative will be part of the Live Well Allegheny Teen Corps.

Selected teens will both develop and deliver messages to youth in the region to help them develop lifelong, health-promoting habits. The teens will receive an orientation to public health, communication and health campaigns, and will then identify pressing health issues facing them and their peers. They will have the opportunity to partner with SHIFT Communications, a public relations firm, to craft their health messages and develop a plan to reach mass audiences.

“We have an ongoing and trusted partnership with the Allegheny Health Department,” says Feinstein. “They are very committed and we want to support them in being assertive in the community. What better way to reach teens than by working with them to come up with the messaging?”

JHF is currently meeting with leaders in the adolescent health community (including those in public health, academia and medicine) to discuss grant proposals and to determine how to best leverage additional resources. Feinstein encourages anyone who has an interest in the grant money to register with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.