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Preventative health programs for Virginia's youth


Children are the future – we have work to do in order to successfully set them up for healthy lives. The environment and behavior patterns during childhood and adolescence have a critical impact in determining an individual’s health as an adult. Children without access to these critical elements are less likely to have good nutrition, impacting their ability to concentrate in school, impeding their academic performance, and putting them at higher risks of childhood obesity, substance use, and health conditions. Childhood obesity affects close to 15 million children and adolescents in the United States, impacting their health and life expectancy rates as adults. Similarly, drug use early on in life has a strong correlation with substance abuse problems as an adult. By the time adolescents reach the 12th grade, nearly half of them have tried an illicit drug.

Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth empowers Virginia’s youth to make healthy choices by reducing and preventing youth tobacco and nicotine use, substance use, and childhood obesity. The Foundation’s grantmaking focuses on these three areas, funding significant infrastructure support, evidence-based programming, and innovative practices to improve health outcomes for youth in Virginia. As a result of their grantmaking, thousands of youth receive prevention services in schools, community centers, after-school programs, and other youth-serving locations.

The Foundation also provides significant capacity support by partnering with Catchafire. Together, we provide meaningful access to resources for small organizations and support the health outcomes of Virginia’s youth. Within two years of this partnership, Catchafire has delivered over $1 million in impact to over 400 health nonprofits in Virginia.

Michael Parsons, Director of Programs, discussed the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth’s vision and their regional grantmaking approach to health prevention measures for youth.

What is your community’s most outstanding health related need and how has the foundation aligned grant dollars and resources to strategically address it?

The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth considers its community to be all of the youth living in Virginia. Because Virginia is so large, we divide our grantmaking into four distinct regions, with a regional grants administrator who lives and works in each region supporting a caseload of grantees. We’re a diverse state - Northern Virginia is fairly dense and urban, Southwest Virginia is very rural and spread out over the Appalachian Mountains, the Southeast includes much of the coast, and Central Virginia is clustered around the capital of Richmond. The health needs for each area differ widely. Ultimately, the Foundation is focused on empowering young people to make healthy decisions around three areas: childhood obesity, tobacco and nicotine, and substance use.

The healthcare challenges are greater than any one foundation’s response to solve - how are you building collaborative partnerships to strategically make a difference on your community’s top three priorities?

We couldn’t do any of this by ourselves, and there are too many partners to name. One of our key partnerships is with the Tobacco Free Alliance of Virginia, a statewide network focused on changing policies, systems, and environments with the ultimate goal of a healthy and tobacco-free Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Health is also a critical partner; every two years we work with them to implement the Virginia Youth Survey. This survey is the gold standard for determining health risks and health-promoting behaviors for middle school and high school students across Virginia. It allows us to see, for example, that the percentage of teenagers who use traditional cigarettes has fallen consistently over the past 20 years, while over the past 10 years the percentage who vape has dramatically increased. These results tell us that vaping is now much more prevalent than traditional tobacco use and that health behaviors, and our strategies for addressing them, differ by region. In Southwest Virginia, for example, we know that childhood obesity is more prevalent than other parts of the state. This survey helps us keep an eye on how well we're doing and how well kids in Virginia are doing.

Another collaborative component of our grantmaking includes our regional advisory boards, totaling about 60 members across the state. Volunteer board members live and work in the community, and determine which grant proposals are recommended for funding. Many of them have direct experience with childhood obesity prevention or youth tobacco use prevention. They work for organizations like schools, hospitals, nonprofits, foundations, and universities, and they provide us invaluable access to dozens of organizations in every part of Virginia.

The VFHY programs team, which administers programmatic grants, also works closely with other parts of the Foundation to impact youth. VFHY produces statewide marketing campaigns that reach hundreds of thousands of kids every year. We also fund research, partnering with universities across Virginia to really dig deep into strategies around youth prevention. This upstream research will eventually inform prevention efforts to help kids make healthy choices.

Have urban and rural communities experienced the pandemic differently? Is this assessment informing your grantmaking going forward?

There are sometimes stark differences in child health outcomes between rural and urban communities. We try to provide an equitable distribution of funding, and our regional advisory boards help us figure out where funding is most needed across the state. Our two-part review process involves our advisory boards first reviewing proposals in their region. We then convene a statewide review, if needed, with representation from all regions. In this way, we can ensure that all parts of the state, including both rural and urban areas, have an opportunity to receive appropriate prevention funding.

While our grants are intentionally focused on childhood obesity and tobacco/drug use prevention, we know that health behaviors and even the impacts of COVID are influenced by many interconnected factors: where you live, family income, access to resources, and more. We make sure our selection process encourages the funding of high-quality organizations who work closely with the youth they serve and who understand their unique cultures and needs.

We also allow grantees the flexibility to implement prevention efforts in their communities. The strategies that our rural grantees implement may differ from those of our urban grantees, and we think that’s absolutely appropriate.

How does Catchafire support your mission? What impact have you seen - how has capacity building support and using Catchafire helped health nonprofits?

So many organizations leaned on Catchafire during COVID to learn how to use technology in new ways, and how to pivot from in-person instruction to remote instruction. We fund a lot of school-based programs, after-school programs, day care centers, and community centers, many of which had to switch to remote instruction for the first time. Many grantees feared that if young people were out of school and at home for much of the day, childhood obesity and drug use might increase. As a Foundation we knew that we had to be flexible and do everything we could, including providing access to Catchafire, to keep prevention programs running during the pandemic.

Other valuable support provided by Catchafire included setting up Zoom meetings, filming instructional videos to give families and children, translating materials into other languages, and change management for Executive Directors. We have noticed that most grantees begin their work with Catchafire with a short-term concrete project, like designing a logo. Once they see success, they start to take a peek at all of the offerings at Catchafire and continue to go deeper, taking on more extensive project support for things like vision setting or creating a new mission statement. Organizations have had to develop new muscles they didn’t need before COVID.

How has Catchafire affected health outcomes? Do you have a specific nonprofit in your community that has made significant strides in improving the quality of life and health for residents? How?

One incredible organization is Nurture, which aims to improve the health of childbearing families through fitness, education, social support, and community engagement. Their Healthy Communities Action Team, #RVAbreastfeeds, works to reduce childhood obesity and promote a friendly breastfeeding community. There is a lot of evidence about the positive connection between breastfeeding and its downstream health impacts on young people, particularly childhood obesity. Their goal is to ensure that spaces in their area are amenable to successful breastfeeding.

As a small agency, they don’t have the in-house or back office support that larger organizations take for granted. They have so many posted projects on Catchafire and volunteers have helped them in a variety of ways: logo design, branding and marketing support, and even creating an operational budget to assess finances. If you want to grow your agency to have a greater impact on the ground, leaning on Catchafire helps with outsourcing capacity building projects that could have cost thousands of dollars.

What projects do your on-platform grantees have in common?

Many share a similar theme: finding ways to make complex health information understandable to a general audience. Organizations are unable to lean on face to face engagements the way they could two years ago. A website that is easy to navigate, a clear one pager that talks about services, a logo that stands out - these marketing projects help small organizations get their message out and connect with the community without relying on face to face interaction.

As your foundation is reviewing grant applications, what is a common capacity need that grantees are experiencing and how has Catchafire been a resource to address those needs?

When organizations submitted their proposals and budgets two and three years ago, materials and labor cost less than they do now. Organizations are dealing with the overwhelming impacts of COVID and inflation and are working hard to retain high-quality staff. With frozen budgets and salaries, nonprofits are unable to keep up with the competitive job market. Grantees are concerned about keeping their head above water as materials get more expensive and staff turnover rates increase. If you lose a staff member, it often takes at least a month or two to find a replacement. During this time, how do you implement a program without a staff member? That’s where Catchafire’s capacity building support is extremely helpful.

Our Board of Trustees recently approved a ten percent increase in all grant budgets to help with the cost of inflation. It’s the single most helpful short-term support we can give to grantees. Our grantees have excellent people in place, they are working on high-quality projects or implementing evidence-based programs, and we trust them to spend these extra dollars wisely. We believe in spending money on our grantees, who work in the community and know where the money should go.

Traditionally, nonprofits have relied upon volunteers to perform tasks that are relatively low-skilled, tangible, and that can often be accomplished without much experience, like painting a fence. In contrast, Catchafire volunteers are donating their hard-earned expertise and their highly specialized knowledge. This is the kind of volunteering that can build capacity and make a long-term difference in the lives of young people, and I am just thankful that Catchafire exists.


“Everything is connected. When young people are healthy and not using drugs, when they have reliable access to healthy foods and physical activity, they’re more likely to show up to school ready to learn. These are just some of the interconnected and compounding effects of health. We try not to have a one size fits all approach for grantees.”

Michael Parsons
Director of Programs, Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth


“We are not sure where we would be right now without access to Catchafire. This is a phenomenal resource. We have received solid support from their volunteers…An example: we are piloting a virtual breastfeeding support group. We needed expert counsel on how to both increase visibility of our program via social media, and how to foster community within the private Facebook Group that is part of the program. We found a volunteer on Catchafire who has been extremely helpful in both of these areas. We could not have afforded this kind of support otherwise.”

Leslie Lytle
Executive Director, Nurture


Learn more about the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

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If you’re a grantmaker and would like to learn more about equipping nonprofits in your community with responsive, high-quality operational support, let’s connect.

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