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Center for Adolescent Health

Center for Adolescent Health Blog

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Thanks to a COVID-19 Supplemental Grant form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Adolescent Health and HeartSmiles are teaming up with Hip Hop Public Health to make sure Black families in Baltimore get vaccinated.

As part of the grant, CAH will also work with the JHSPH International Vaccine Access Center, Baltimore City Public Schools, and the Baltimore City Health Department to understand the rate of COVID-19 vaccine uptake in Baltimore’s Black families – which make up 63 percent of Baltimore’s population.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Hip Hop Public Health, HeartSmiles, the Hopkins Vaccine Center, and our other partners on this project,” said Center for Adolescent Health Director Dr. Tamar Mendelson. “We’re excited to train young people as health ambassadors and develop a multi-generational website that families can access for accurate and engaging information about the COVID vaccine.”

The partnership will use the Youth Health Ambassadors model developed by Hip Hop Public Health as an entry point to educating Black families on the COVID-19 and encouraging them to get vaccinated. It will include a website that will expand to be a health resource for Baltimore’s families.

The grant – which CAH was eligible for as a CDC Prevention Research Center – allows the Center, HeartSmiles, and Hip Hop Public Health to expand on work they were already doing together on Hip Hop Public Health’s “Community Immunity” campaign.

The centerpiece of the “Community Immunity” campaign is a series of animated Hip Hop videos featuring Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of RUN DMC and Hip Hop Public Health founder and President Dr. Olajide Williams.

As featured on PBS News Hour last month, Hip Hop Public Health began working with HeartSmiles’ founder and President Joni Holifield and members of the CAH’s Youth Advisory Board like Young Elder to localize the “Community Immunity” videos to Baltimore.

This will include Baltimore youth adding their own lyrics to the videos that center on their communities.

Young people from Baltimore can submitted their verses for a chance to be one of three $1,000 winners who have their lyrics included in the Baltimore specific videos.

Three Baltimore winners were announced Friday, May 21 by HeartSmiles and include  16-year-olds Chalres Leak aka Big 16  and Kalil Sykes aka Beats,  17-year-old Tayonna Jackson aka TayyBandz. Next month they’ll be taking to celebrity artists and producers to get feedback on their work to make it “radio ready."

“Hip Hop Public Health recognizes that young people are quite literally the future and carry the ability to inform and affect positive health behaviors through their creativity and their unique perspectives,” said Dr. Olajide Williams, Founder of Hip Hop Public Health, tenured Professor of Neurology at Columbia University, and Chief of Staff of the Department of Neurology at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Our Hip Hop Verse Challenge in collaboration with Rolling Out is an imaginative and effective way for us to harness the power of young people and their artistry to have a positive impact and outcome on communities everywhere.”

The hope is to replicate this localization model in other cities around the country.

In their role as Youth Health Ambassadors, members of CAH’s Youth Advisory Board led a virtual session at the CDC Prevention Research Center conference at the end of April.

Stuck at home due to the statewide stay-at-home order, Lamar found a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic as he tuned in daily to the HeartSmiles Success Sessions.

The HeartSmiles Success Sessions offer Baltimore youth structured online programming from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, that includes mentoring, academic tutoring and guest speakers.

“One of the biggest challenges that I faced was myself and staying consistent, I could never feel motivated enough to do anything compared to what I’m doing right now,” Lamar said.

These daily sessions are an adaptation and extension of the work HeartSmiles and its founder Joni Holifield were previously doing with Baltimore’s young people in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) Center for Adolescent Health (CAH).


Prior to the JHSPH putting in place restrictions due to the pandemic, HeartSmiles hosted 30 to 50 youth in person for Winning Wednesdays and Thriving Thursdays at CAH, as well as hosting a half hour online session through Instagram on Friday afternoons.

As JHSPH and Baltimore City Public Schools closures took affect and the stay-at-home order was put in place, Holifield and her staff knew they needed to quickly fill the voids being left in the lives of local teens.

“Lots of kids were expressing their need to remain connected and we knew we had to do something and that it had to be more,” Holifield said. “Before we could even miss a day of programming we were up and running online.”

The Success Sessions started on Instagram Live in mid-March, but with 100 plus youth tuning in, the platform quickly became overloaded by the demand. Without missing a beat, the HeartSmiles team switched to using a combination of YouTube and Zoom – a technological match that has served them well.

Center for Adolescent Health Director Tamar Mendelson has been awed by the speed with which the HeartSmiles team was able to get the Success Sessions going and the depth of the programming – which brings the youth back day after day.

Mendelson notes that while schools are giving students packets to complete, the Success Sessions offer five hours of free programming five days a week.

“Youth are able to ask questions and interact with presenters so that the content is relevant to them and they have voice in the process,” Mendelson said. “This gives young people a place to tune in and can help structure their time while schools are closed. HeartSmiles also provides information about local resources, including food sites and other supports, which is helpful for youth who may not be well connected with other sources that describe these resources.”

The sense of support and having input into the process, Lamar said, is what he finds inspiring about the Success Sessions.

“It gives me the support I need to feel like I can’t give up,” Lamar said. “Everyone in HeartSmiles is a family and as family we are destined to push each other and ensure that we are all great as a whole. Having this allows me to feel like I can take risk without being afraid that it won’t work.”

Lamar, Holifield and Mendelson have all been impressed by the guest speakers, who have ranged from Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and the Blomberg School of Public Health’s Dr. Josh Sharfstein to domestic violence and sexual assault advocate William Kellibrew and Hip-Hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh.

Holifield asks that any “caring adult” sign up for a hour guest speaker spot.

Given her experiences during COVID-19, Holifield believes young people will want and need some version of the Success Sessions to continue once the city begins its return to normal.

“We’re not sure if we’re going to post pre-recorded sessions or find a way to continue a live version, but either way Success Sessions are here to stay and we’ll figure out the consistency once we get past the current need,” Holifield said.

By Jerrell Bratcher

Teen participants of HeartSmiles Summer Institute have been working on The Granny Project, which aims to help close the gap on food insecurity among youth by bringing healthy, well-balanced meals to our Baltimore communities.

The Granny Project is a nutrition program concept developed by the young people in the HeartSmiles Summer Institute. This program is a multi-generational approach to food insecurity and will pair youth with senior citizens—grannies and granddaddies—who are strong figures in their community and have a passion for cooking. The grannies and granddaddies will prepare a popular, traditional family recipe side-by-side with youth. Each granny and granddaddy will cook with small groups of teens as cross-generational relationships between the grandparents and young people deepen and the young people will develop cooking skills. The Granny Project program will be held at community kitchens in Baltimore City four times each month. Youth participants will be able to earn a ServSafe Food Handler and ServSafe Manager certifications. Each session will have an online media component, allowing youth to share their experiences and what they are learning with their peers through social media.

The first Granny Project event will be on August 1, 2019, from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. at CitySeeds, 1412 N Wolfe St, Baltimore, MD 21213. Currently, we have three grandparents and 60 youth participating.  

HeartSmiles is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving young people in Baltimore City who want to turn their great ideas into thriving small businesses. Since 2015 HeartSmiles founder Joni Holifield has dedicated her life to serving youth and young adults in Baltimore City. She became a partner and friend of the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health in 2016 through a Youth Leadership and Advocacy Network group focused on the Baltimore City Health Department’s Youth Health and Wellness Strategy. Since that time, HeartSmiles has become a key partner to the Center’s Youth Advisory Board. The partnership supports the mission and vision of the Center by applying and demonstrating the Center’s core principles of love, trust, commitment and respect with special emphasis on equity. The Center’s Youth Advisory Board, HeartSmiles Thriving Thursdays, and HeartSmiles Summer Institute represent the diversity of Baltimore adolescents across many backgrounds, socioeconomic status, neighborhood and age. Resources, support, and relationships with caring adults help to level the field for young people who are often stigmatized by the neighborhood in which they reside, what school they attend, their family’s access to resources and their mental health status.

HeartSmiles vision is to instill hope, passion, sense of belonging and an entrepreneurial spirit within youth living in under-privileged communities so that they might realize and harness their strength to break generational cycles of mindset and financial poverty. HeartSmiles mission is to motivate, inspire and empower Baltimore's youth to BMORE through the idea of entrepreneurship and leadership.

HeartSmiles programs teach youth the fundamentals of starting and sustaining a small business; teach youth how to identify and demonstrate character traits of an effective people leader; and help youth build confidence, self-esteem and self-worth through self-discovery and acceptance.

Special thanks to our program’s event partners and sponsors:

Bloomberg Philanthropies

Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Baltimore

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

The Johns Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Adolescent Health

Bloomberg Baltimore Summer YouthWorks Fellows

The Mayor’s Office of Employment Development

Urban Alliance

Living Classrooms Foundation

The Black Mental Health Alliance

City Seeds

Connie’s Chicken & Waffle’s

Johns Hopkins Office of Government & Community Affairs

Connect & follow:

heartsmilesmd                  HeartSmiles, LLC          heartsmilesmd


Jerrell Bratcher                       Star Rollins    

443-768-1661 (cell)                602-552-4954 (cell)

Joni Holifield, CEO & Founder, HeartSmiles /

443-271-4075 (cell)


“Baltimore’s heartbeat for youth advocacy, youth service, youth development, and youth leadership.”


Youth Advisory Board Members Inspired After Arts Showcase in New York City 

Jerome Waters and his family

Jerome Waters, a member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health’s Youth Advisory Board, organized a concert in New York City to showcase the talent of young musicians and artists. The showcase included five performers from Waters’ Humble Beast Movement record label who emphasize positive messages in their music. Additionally, about 15 teenagers from Baltimore and New York competed for the chance to perform at Waters’ upcoming summer concert series. The Center for Adolescent Health’s communications specialist, Lauren Burns, had the chance to talk to Waters and Joni Holified, Waters’ mentor and founder of HeartSmiles, a Baltimore-based organization passionately dedicated to motivating, inspiring, and empowering Baltimore's youth.

Lauren: How did you promote the showcase?

Jerome: Mostly [through] social media from my team here in Baltimore. We actually reached out to a few New York people that could promote for us, a couple of organizations, and they helped us get it together and bring out a New York crowd. We found who were the hottest performers [and] upcoming artists from New York City and we said, “You guys, are you interested in this opportunity?” And a lot of them took it, and brought their friends along as well.

Lauren: I think the big point of Humble Beast Movement is that the musicians and artists that are connected with HBM have a positive message. Why is that so important to you?

Jerome: Positive music it gives them [HBM artists] more of an outlet in different arenas to express themselves.
Women performing

Joni: Especially in Baltimore, being able to allow [adolescents to do] something that they're passionate about, something that they gravitate towards and be able to turn that into something positive can oftentimes mean the difference, literally, between life and death for some young people. We have several young people who suffer severely with depression and the only way that they are able to deal with and cope and manage that depression is through music. 

Lauren: What makes you committed to creating opportunities for young performers in Baltimore?

Jerome: So many talented kids and talented people are all really just left by the wayside because they don't know the business and they don't understand what music can do for them. There's so many lost talents that they can't even generate revenue from them because they don't know how, so it's my job to teach them how and get the youth out of poverty. We have a couple of artists right now coming up and getting paid for their music as we speak so it's a good feeling. 

Joni: It's just important for us to still be able to feed to them that positive message. Music is a universal language. Music breaks a lot of barriers between people. Music is one of those things that we all can sit around and gather around and bring us together regardless of our backgrounds, our cultures, our different experiences, and all that, so when you think about music and art a lot of times it is a common denominator when you think about things that bring people together genuinely.

Lauren: What was your favorite part of the event?
Group of performers

Jerome: When we went to New York we all worked together. Everybody was from Baltimore; we were one team. We moved as one. So it was so much easier for us to support each other. Every Baltimore artist that came up to the stage, everyone cheered for one another. It was a great feeling. I feel it was important.

Joni: It was an amazing feeling to see the kids buzzing on social media, they're still talking about it. It’s still the talk of Baltimore--the HBM trip to New York. I can't go in any high school or in any public place right now without somebody asking me, “When can they go to New York with HBM?”.  It's just brought so much hope and so much positivity back to the city for young people who want to push on.