BENNINGTON COUNTY - As Americorps VISTA volunteers in southern Vermont, we've had many opportunities over the past 10 months to be involved in some novel community and health-oriented projects. One that we're really excited about is the use of the Photovoice method by youth of Bennington County.

Photovoice is an innovative technique using video and photographs to tell a story and send a message. It offers a concrete way for youth to express their opinions and to be sure that those opinions are heard.

The project asked youth in Bennington County to share their opinions about how their communities impact their health. More than 50 young people are participating in the resulting exhibit of photos and visual art pieces housed at 443 Main St. in Bennington throughout June. The program had an opening exhibit on Friday, June 7 as part of Bennington's First Fridays June celebration. To find out additional viewing times, visit svhealthcare.org/events.

Photovoice provides a creative way for participants to evaluate and document the landscape of their communities. The four participating groups are Arlington Memorial Middle School students, Mount Anthony Union Middle and High Schools students, Teens for Change, and youth from The Collaborative.

The exhibit shows photographs and visual art pieces taken by participants that highlight their thoughts on what parts of their environment affect their health. Each group used different techniques to capture their personal perspectives as residents and as people who bring about change in their communities.

For examples, some groups highlighted condition of sidewalks, the ability to safely walk throughout their communities, recreational assets, or opportunities or challenges to accessing healthy foods.

Throughout the project, participants engaged in educational opportunities with the Department of Health's Bennington District Office and school-based wellness teams. All groups also received information about healthy community design. Healthy community design is a concept that examines how a community is constructed and how its design affects someone's health. An example of a healthy community design idea is having safe pathways for pedestrians so they can easily access recreational facilities or grocery stores.

We're very proud of the work the participating students have done on this project. The images are all thought-provoking. We were impressed by how the youth took the idea of creating a healthy community to heart and really involved themselves in this project.

Creating images allowed them to have a voice that could not be ignored, as it is there right in front of the viewer in a more concrete form than language alone. The photos offer a glimpse into the participant's world and remove any stereotypes or judgments people may have about the speaker's age or other aspects about them.

We also found this to be a very unifying project for the areas throughout Bennington County that participated. The Northshire and Southshire are both represented. Again, the final show does not give more weight to one area's youth over another. They all started from the same blank page, or in this case, with the same technology, to create their visual statements.

Photovoice Bennington County was produced in collaboration with the Alliance for Community Transformations (ACT) at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. It was funded by the Vermont Department of Health's Community Based Prevention Fit and Healthy grant program. The project also received a donation from Rotary of Bennington Catamount.

The Alliance for Community Transformations at SVHC is a regional coalition of health advocates, leaders, local businesses, and community members that we've been a part of during our time in Bennington. Its mission is to empower, mobilize, and inspire local communities to act in collaboration towards greater health and sustainable change. All meetings are open to the public.

Nicole Rau and Veronica Ariel are Americorps VISTA volunteers working with the Alliance for Community Transformations at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. "Health Matters" is a weekly column meant to educate about personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. To learn more about ACT, visit www.actsvhc.org.