Nearly 400 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from 15 schools across Boston and Cambridge began a recent morning quite differently than usual. They were at Harvard Medical School (HMS), running in place, doing jumping jacks, and twirling hula hoops. As Beyoncé sang from the speakers, residents from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown took to the stage to lead students in a “Get Moving and Get Healthy” warm-up.

The students were there as part of the 11th annual celebration of Reflection in Action: Building Healthy Communities (RIA). The program works to expand middle school students’ knowledge of health and public health issues, recognize their growing roles as leaders in the community, and use the arts to express messages about health.

RIA was conceived as an extension of the Harvard Medical School Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership Explorations program. It includes a citywide student competition in the written, visual, and performing arts, as well as annual youth leadership awards.

“We give them the forum, but they’re the stars. They’re the ones who bring awareness to many different health issues, such as the perils of smoking, the danger of domestic violence, and the importance of cleaning up our cities. They’re the ones who advocate for their communities. It’s empowering when young people discover that their voices, creative expressions, and activism can have a real tangible and positive impact on our individual and collective health,” said Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership at HMS.

She also said that she hopes to see the students back on campus again, both as part of future RIA programs, and perhaps even at Harvard Medical School.  “Some of you have told me that you want to come back and go to school here someday. I am here to tell you that it is possible. All of this is possible. You are all on the right track. Stay the course, and it will happen,” she said.

More than 300 students submitted entries to this year’s contest. The projects tackled everything from healthy eating and physical fitness to domestic violence and bullying. A panel of judges from the community selected winners in various categories.

In addition, the RIA recognized two students each from Boston and Cambridge with youth leadership awards, which go to students who exhibit initiative, advocate for those less fortunate, and are role models for their peers.

Smith Leadership Academy seventh-grader Matthews DeGray Scantlebury Jr. received the Boston middle schools award, and Boston Latin Academy sophomore Rocio Nunez Pepen received the Boston high schools award. Cambridge Upper Street School eighth-grader Jonathan Cenescar received the Cambridge middle schools award, and Prospect Academy junior Makeda Girma received the Cambridge high schools award.

“The RIA program gave me incredible insight and perspective into so many things. I really enjoyed participating and meeting and learning from people such as Dean Reede,” said Girma. “This was my first year participating, and I really had a great time.” Girma is also in the Harvard University Leaders Program, where she takes part in weekly workshops and after-school tutor sessions.

Her parents, Worknesh Tedla and Girma Gerato, said they have been pleased by her efforts, but not surprised. “She’s been so active with this program, and with everything she does. She deserves it. We couldn’t be more proud of her today … and every day,” said her mother.

“The entire program from start to finish has been so empowering for the kids,” said April Silbert, a sixth-grade teacher at Cambridge Street Upper School. “One of the things that I like best is how our students are treated like adults by Harvard and by everyone involved. They’re here to participate in a conference and to really see, hear, and understand the importance of healthy choices. They learn healthy habits and really have an opportunity to come together and transform the community.”

The day also included break-out sessions about ways in which students can lead healthier lives, including demonstrations on everything from fitness to cooking and nutrition.

For a complete list of winners, as well as for more information about the RIA program, please visit

The fall component of RIA, Explorations, will be a full-day program addressing career exploration in science and medicine for Boston and Cambridge middle school students.