When Galvin Deleon Guerrero, EdD, started his term as president of Northern Marianas College in 2021, he immediately sensed that years of traumatizing events—typhoons, economic crises, and a global pandemic—had taken a heavy toll on the mental and physical health of students and employees at the College. With that awareness, in November of that year, he launched the College’s first-ever Health Squad, which has taken a holistic approach to health with a mission to “promote health and wellness, including physical, social, emotional, and environmental health.” Since then, the Health Squad has launched several impactful initiatives and held numerous health-related events almost every month.
The first initiative that the Squad launched was the Wellness Passport, which is currently entering its second year. The program was designed to encourage employee participation in group and individual activities that promote and support health and wellness in five dimensions: physical, social, spiritual, environmental, and emotional. Tracked online using the College’s Moodle tool, employees upload proof of participation in each of the five dimensions. Employees that complete all five dimensions qualify for a lottery at the end of the Spring semester to win various prizes.
Health Squad member and Sciences, Math, Health, and Athletics Department faculty, Lisa Lunde, facilitates the Wellness Passport and noted its success. “Our 1st Wellness Passport during Spring 2022 had 62 participants and we’re currently running one for the Spring 2023 term.”
Another initiative pursued by the Squad was to amend the College’s Sick Leave procedures to cover a broader range of health issues. Working with NMC’s College Council, Sick Leave was reframed as Health Leave in order to allow employees to avail of such leave for a wide variety of reasons, whether extra time is needed to go to the gym, an employee would like to squeeze in time for a 30-minute walk, or an employee just needs a mental health day to destress and refocus.
Squad member and Project PROA counselor, Malyssa Castro said, “I feel that the switch from Sick leave to Health leave is the institution saying that my mental and emotional health matters too.” She added, “I appreciate that I can take care of my health as a whole and not only when I am sick.”
Another initiative launched by the Health Squad was the creation of a new employee benefit in which the College partially shares the cost of an annual membership at an approved gym. The cost is amortized via each bi-weekly payroll and is only covered as long as a participating employee avails of the gym membership.
Squad member and admissions counselor, Victoria Bellas, took the lead in developing the fitness benefit. As she put it, “In so many ways, I see how the Northern Marianas College sets the standard for workforce trends here in the CNMI. The launch of the Fitness Benefit aligns with this very sentiment.” She added, “I believe that more and more people see how the Health Squad is taking into consideration every aspect of mental and physical well-being to promote the overall happiness of our employees. In my opinion, that should set precedence for all work places here and all over the world.”
The Health Squad, in partnership with the College’s Cooperative Research, Extension, and Education Services (CREES), has also partnered with the Marianas Health Group to host its own cohort of employees who are participating in the Health Education, Awareness, and Physical Activity Initiative (H.A.F.A. Initiative). The H.A.F.A. Initiative is a program through the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organization (AAPCHO) and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), designed for Pacific Islanders. As the CNMI's only evidence-based lifestyle change program, class sessions include health education, awareness on food and nutrition, while promoting wellness, exercise and physical activities with local lifestyle coaches in-person and virtually via Zoom.
Squad chair and institutional researcher, Lisa Hacskaylo, was very happy about the launch of the H. A. F. A. Initiative. “I've been wanting to get back to focusing on my health for a while now, and the weekly 1-hour classes on campus have been incredibly helpful.” She also said, “We all know the importance of being physically active and eating well, but with the support and encouragement of our coach, George Cruz, and our classmates and "battle buddies", we are finding ways to get moving and improve our eating habits one day at a time. It's a journey towards better health and we are on the journey together!”
Health and Wellness Events and Activities
In addition to these initiatives, the Health Squad has worked with several College and community partners to host numerous events and activities. Building on the success of Small Business nights sponsored by the CNMI Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the Squad partnered with the SBDC to host a Health Night earlier this year that featured small businesses in the CNMI that have a focus on healthy living. The event was an opportunity to support local business, register for the College’s Fitness Benefit, and participate in a number of fun activities that promote health and wellness.
On Thursdays, employees and students alike can join veteran College instructor, Barry Wicksman, for free Tai Chi sessions. For 10 to 15 minutes, participants experience meditation and mindfulness while also stretching and toning muscles through this traditional Chinese martial art. And, on Friday mornings from about 8:15 am to 8:35 am, students and employees can join Health Squad members for the Squad’s “Walk-This-Way” program as they get to know the campus by taking brisk but manageable walks.
Just Getting Started
According to President Deleon Guerrero, “While we’ve gotten off to a great start and have accomplished quite a bit, the Health Squad is just getting started.” In particular, Deleon Guerrero would like to do more to meet the mental and social-emotional health needs of College stakeholders. “The COVID-19 pandemic helped all of us better understand and appreciate the importance of mental health, so we need to offer more programs and services that support the mental health and overall well-being of our people.”
Deleon Guerrero also hopes that, eventually, Squad activities can expand to include more activities with students, and even plans to launch a Student Health Squad to help make that happen. Looking ahead to the new campus facilities that will be built in the coming years, Deleon Guerrero also intends to create spaces that support the health and wellness of all College stakeholders, whether that be more walkways, a revived College gym room, and even a serenity room where employees and students can rest and meditate.
Deleon Guerrero acknowledged, “These may seem ambitious and unattainable, but that should not stop us from trying.” He added, “Consistent with the College’s strategic master plan, we must do all that we can to take care of our people.”
Led by Squad Chair Lisa Hacskaylo from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the Health Squad is composed of a broad cross section of College employees: Eileen Babauta from University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Victoria Bellas from the Office of Admissions and Records, Malyssa Castro from Project PROA, Miguel Dandan from the Office of Institutional Advancement, Lisa Lunde from the Science, Math, Health and Athletics Department, Ashley Sikayun from CREES, and Galvin Deleon Guerrero from the Office of the President. To learn more about the Northern Marianas College Health Squad, feel free to visit the Squad’s page on the College’s website at https://www.marianas.edu/
From left, NMC Health Squad members Miguel Dandan, Galvin Deleon Guerrero, Ashley Sikayun, Lisa Hacskaylo, Lisa Lunde, Victoria Bellas, Malyssa Castro, and Eileen Babauta.
NMC Instructor Barry Wicksman led a free Tai Chi class during the first-ever "Health Night" hosted by the NMC Health Squad in collaboration with the CNMI Small Business Development Center in January.
In March, NMC Health Squad members Malyssa Castro (left) and Lisa Hacskaylo (center, red) led a "Walk this Way" event, which brought together NMC employees and students for a group walk. The event aimed to promote physical activity and healthy habits among participants.