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Alhassan strives to improve lives of minority children

Date: 10/1/2012

By Lori Szepelak

SPRINGFIELD — Sofiya Alhassan, PhD., FACSM, is on a mission to improve the health and lives of minority children.

Alhassan's research is based on a grant from the National Institutes of Health, and as a member of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst faculty, the study is sponsored by UMass. She is an assistant professor and director of the Pediatric Physical Activity Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology.

Alhassan's role as principle investigator will delve into the impact that African-American moms can have when participating in physical activity programs with their daughters.

"Currently, there is no scientific information on mother-daughter physical activity programs in African-Americans," she said during an interview with Reminder Publications.

The initiative is called MAGNET (Mothers and Girls Dancing Together) Trial, and gets underway Jan. 14, 2013 at the Rebecca Johnson Elementary School, 55 Catherine St. The deadline to register for the 12-week program which will meet three times a week is Nov. 30.

"We are trying to recruit moms and daughters now because we have to get their baseline measures," she said.

Alhassan explained that the trial will be divided over two years (2013-2014), so she needs 42 to 50 moms and daughters to sign up in the coming weeks for the January launch of the first program. Alhassan will study the use of African style dancing on the health of women of color and their daughters, ages seven to 10.

"The reason we are dividing it into two years is that we do not have the resources to complete the entire sample in one year," she said, adding, "Also, we want to provide one-on-one mentoring for the girls."

Being an African-American woman, I am very passionate about improving the levels of our African-American children. For this program we are defining 'mother' as the primary female role model living with the girl," she continued.

The program will run from Jan. 14 through April 5, 2013 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The girls have to be at the program at 4 p.m. but moms do not have to be at the school until 5:30. All girls will be provided with a healthy snack.

Alhassan noted that day care services will be provided for siblings who are not eligible (due to age or gender) for the study so moms can participate in the initiative.

"I am also trying to partner up with local organizations to get food donations so that we can provide dinner for mom and daughter, so that mom does not have to go home after the program to make dinner," she said.

Alhassan encourages moms to sign up for the program for several reasons, including the "great opportunity to spend time with their daughters." Also, girls will receive free homework tutoring and mentoring. Each mother-daughter team will also receive a stipend of $140 for taking part in the 12-week program.

Alhassan said that her research will require participants to complete surveys, have weight and height measurements taken, as well to wear an activity monitor on one's waist to measure physical activity levels. The insulin and cholesterol levels for the girls will also be measured.

Local African-American dancers within the Springfield area will serve as dance instructors, according to Alhassan.

"Physical activity has been shown to lead to positive effects in the lives of girls and women," Alhassan said. "Increasing physical activity has been shown to improve children's academic performance, how they feel, their classroom behavior, and their risk of obesity and diabetes."

Alhassan noted that for a program to be effective in African-Americans, the program needs to be enjoyable and fun, have a strong cultural and historical significance in the African-American community — Afro-centric Dance — and involve the "mother" figure.

Alhassan added that moms and daughters will receive a weekly newsletter that provides information on communication skills, resources in Springfield, obesity status, Type 2 diabetes risk, and blood cholesterol levels.

For more information on the free afterschool dance program, call 545-6104 or send an email to