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By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor
Sarah Mummah is beyond doubt a determined woman. She recalls that as a Stanford student, when a professor was discussing disparities in education and health between affluent people and the poor, she demanded: "What can I do about this? Why isn't anyone doing something about this? It shouldn't be that hard."
"I was so naive," the 23-year-old Atherton resident acknowledges over a latte and fruit cup at Cafe Borrone during a recent interview with the Almanac.
Naive or not, Ms. Mummah found herself unable to stop gnawing on the basic questions raised during that discussion. But instead of asking why someone else wasn't doing something about the problem, she focused on the first question -- what could she do to correct the troublesome disparities?
Throughout her years at Stanford, where she earned a degree with honors in human biology, she explored ways to change what she perceived as an unnecessary condition among disadvantaged kids that made success and good health as adults much less likely than they were for their privileged peers. And in 2008, while still a student, she founded DreamCatchers, a nonprofit serving low-income middle school students -- now including high school students -- in the areas of academics and health.
A cornerstone of the DreamCatchers' program is one-on-one tutoring with a Stanford student who stays with the younger student for an entire academic year, Ms. Mummah explains. "So they get tailor-made academic support and mentorship, and they get in the loop for a college path."
The program includes a health component, and offers a weekly cooking class that focuses on healthful foods.
What started as a temporary summer project with Stanford volunteers teaching and mentoring kids is now an established, award-winning program based in Palo Alto -- and was likely to have been among the credentials that stood out for the panel of applicant reviewers who recently chose Ms. Mummah as one of 40 Americans named 2012 Gates Cambridge Scholars.
The Gates scholarship pays all expenses for Ms. Mummah's studies at Cambridge University, where she plans to work on a master's degree in public health, researching approaches to changing behavior that impacts health.
Ms. Mummah's education in human biology at Stanford was bolstered, sometimes joltingly, by the education she received through direct experience in the field of human motivation.
During her early student days, she volunteered with the group Students for Healthy Youth, working with fifth-graders at a school with many low-income kids. One day, she asked the kids to raise their hands if someone in their family had diabetes, which led to a discussion of how poor eating habits might lead to the now-epidemic disease.
But eventually, she realized that talking about the problem wasn't enough. What good was talk, she asked herself, when she knew deep down that the kids would be heading straight from the classroom to "their hot Cheetos and ice cream."
"It did not take me long to understand: It's not just telling people what to eat and what not to eat," she says. "Ever since, I've become very interested in cracking the puzzle."
And one conclusion she's come to: "Sometimes a 'stealth motive' is needed" -- a strategy to get people involved in enjoyable activities that would, by their nature, keep the participants fit and healthy. In that way, she realized, people might be nudged rather than nagged toward good health.
Building a model
In developing and administering her nonprofit, DreamCatchers, Ms. Mummah builds upon research that shows that programs focusing on multiple areas are more effective than single-focus programs. Academics and good health seemed the logical combination for a program whose goal is to prepare disadvantaged kids for a successful future.
In a recent report, the nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids cites research showing "a direct link between nutritional intake and academic performance, as well as between physical activity and academic achievement."
DreamCatchers' weekly family cooking class is open to its students as well as their siblings, friends, parents and tutors. "We use fresh ingredients to create fast, economical and nutritious meals that families can easily recreate at home," according to the DreamCatchers website. The program also sends the families home with complimentary ingredients to prepare in their own kitchens.
Other health-related elements of the program: DreamCatchers provides after-school snacks to its participants, and Ms. Mummah says the organization is coordinating with the Palo Alto Family YMCA, which already provides classroom space for the organization, "to explore how we can work together to promote physical activity among our families."
The organization's annual evaluation report for the last academic year, based on surveys taken at the beginning and end of the year, states that "average grades across students and courses improved," particularly in math. "Gains in habits were moderate, with about half of students reporting use of comprehensive reading habits regularly."
Ms. Mummah emphasizes that DreamCatchers offers benefits not only for the low-income students it serves, but for the university volunteers who work with the program. The positive synergy has boosted her hopes that the model created through DreamCatchers will catch on in other communities to help underserved kids.
"I believe an exciting strength of our work is that our model is highly cost-effective (through the extensive in-kind resources and support we receive) and highly replicable across the country (through partnerships with other universities across the country and their neighboring communities)," she says in an email.
Such replication would not only help a far wider community of low-income middle and high school kids, "but also inspire and help equip a larger community of college students to make a difference in public health and education," she says.
With an eye toward expansion and sustainability, the organization will be boosting its fundraising efforts, Ms. Mummah said. It is now supported by numerous sources that include nonprofits, businesses, and individual donors.
Although Cambridge calls -- the scholarship is effective the next academic year -- Ms. Mummah has asked for a one-year deferment so that she can be here to shepherd DreamCatchers through its current efforts to expand its reach. "It's really taking off now, and I want to be around for it," Ms. Mummah says.
When she does arrive on the Cambridge campus, Ms. Mummah says she will continue to research "stealth" and other strategies to improve public health.
In her Gates Cambridge Scholar application, she wrote about her experiences as a public health researcher in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2010-11. "In the indigenous community of San Andres Zautla, I met a traveling dance troupe of elderly women," she wrote.
"Although they had initially formed the group to reclaim their indigenous heritage, in time, they had come to value the strength and physical vitality that dancing and exercise gave their bodies. These women unknowingly embodied a new approach at the forefront of the field that I had studied at Stanford: a 'stealth' intervention, grounded in behavior-change theories that engage people in healthy behaviors using motivations apart from health."
Through her work, she said in the application, she would "champion a new approach to obesity prevention exemplified by these women, by building a series of highly effective health-behavior change interventions designed to usher in a paradigm shift in the way we tackle our obesity crisis, both domestically and abroad."
Ms. Mummah is the daughter of Dr. Ana Mummah of Atherton and Phil Mummah of Palo Alto.
Go to dreamcatchersyouth.org to learn more about DreamCatchers.