Breaking Boundaries in Baker County

Baker County, Florida is about 30 minutes west of downtown Jacksonville, and is home to roughly 27,000 people. Its neighbor, Duval County, has a population of about 926,000 people (a slight difference). Macclenny is the hub of Baker County, home to important buildings like the schools, the health department, the courthouse, and the only Walmart in the county. It’s a tight-knit community where, for the most part, hunting and college football are passions (go Dawgs), tobacco use is common, and the southern country drawl can be heard in almost every classroom. Being raised in Georgia, I always thought I knew what southern culture was like: the food, the music, the people, and the use of “sir” and “ma’am”. It wasn’t until my very first day in Baker County Middle School where I learned I was wrong.

For the 2017-2018 NHC-FL term, I am serving as a NHC FL AmeriCorps Health Educator for the Florida Department of Health in Baker County. Among my other responsibilities, I am tasked with teaching positive youth development lessons to Baker County’s only middle school and only high school. The curriculum consists of lessons about decision-making, communication, peer pressure, healthy relationships, and how to avoid and manage violence and drugs. My first day in the school I shadowed the prevention specialist, who has been teaching this curriculum for years. We started with an icebreaker where we would learn about the students’ likes, dislikes, hobbies, and sometimes family life, if they wanted to share.  From these icebreakers I learned a few things: many of these kids have never traveled out of the county, many of their families have lived in Baker County for generations, that Hunting Camp is a thing, and most importantly that I have very little in common with these groups of kids.  Even after sitting through 6 different class periods with the same icebreaker, I still felt like I knew almost nothing about them. I wanted to be a good educator, but I knew that if couldn’t relate, if I didn’t try to understand their backgrounds, my chances of making an impact were very slim.

As the weeks went on, I made it a mission to become more immersed. I attended school activities, went to the county fair, familiarized myself with the town, and tried to start conversations as much as I could with those who live there, especially the kids. Making a conscious effort to learn more about the area and its people helped me realize two things: 1) Even though I’d lived in the south for 18 years, this small town in Northern Florida was nothing like I’ve ever experienced and 2) The more I learned about Baker County and its people, the easier it was for me to communicate with the students. As a result of getting to know them and their environment better, I approached my service term with much more confidence.

To gain a better understanding of the population I’m serving, I became interested in their lives and more involved in their community. This in turn gave me more confidence as a health educator. I feel more comfortable teaching, and just being able to have conversations with the kids. It brings me joy when students say hi to me in the halls, recognize me outside of school, or tell me that Thursdays are their favorite because I’m there. These small interactions makes me feel like I am making an impact. By making an effort to genuinely listen to and understand my students, I was able to break boundaries between us and build good relationships.

This blog post was written by NHC FL AmeriCorps member RJ Tapales.

RJ Serves at FDOH in Baker County as a Health Educator.