Sophia and Nickolas, co-founders of Balma Health.

As co-founders, we have always been engaged and focused on healthcare disparities and inequity. Coming from a family of Latino immigrants and having lived in numerous countries throughout the world, we have witnessed the vast disparities present in healthcare and education. Striving to learn more about these ever-present issues in the U.S., we have collectively worked in various educator positions as well as conducted research investigating disparities in treatment and diagnosis throughout healthcare for multiple years. Now, with the toll of the pandemic on education and health, we are even more driven to bridge these gaps in the social side of healthcare.

We founded Project Empower, a nonprofit organization, in 2018 as an initiative towards providing STEM opportunities for underrepresented elementary, middle, and high school students in disadvantaged schools. Through the development of creative curriculums and after-school programs, Project Empower was able to inspire and entertain hundreds of young students. As the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted learning opportunities, Project Empower facilitated the development of STEM boxes containing inquisitive, small-scale experiments designed to teach foundational scientific topics. Moreover, the feedback received from parents utilizing these STEM boxes signaled a growing need for not only continued educational tools for science, but also one to aid in the explanation of COVID-19 and illnesses as a whole.

Motivated by this need, Project Empower designed a COVID-19 Lung Kit aiming to facilitate a healthy learning environment where a child could learn about COVID-19 on both the fronts of science and public health. From our previous experiences, we recognized the value of autonomous and student focused learning, which sparked the foundation for our kit as a tool where the child would be at the forefront and actively learning through do-it-yourself models. The COVID-19 Kit grew into a widely successful learning tool, with over 500 kits ordered, nationwide media coverage, and remarkable feedback from both parents and children who utilized these kits. Per a kindergarten teacher, the COVID-19 Kit “brought the concept to life and understanding” where the students could “see, hear, touch, and smell it,” providing an environment where “the students could learn best.” Stemming from the feedback we received from users of the COVID-19 Kit, especially those who had previously had or had a family member with COVID-19, we saw the potential for similar autonomous learning models for use in teaching children about other illnesses.

A student using our COVID-19 lung model kit.

This idea was realized in the creation of Balma Health, a company devoted to improving children’s understandings of chronic illnesses through the development of do-it-yourself public health education tools similar to the COVID-19 Kit. From conversing with various physicians, child life specialists, and educators, we realized the lack of educational tools for young children facing difficult chronic disease diagnoses. Not only are children diagnosed with these illnesses often left with a severe lack of understanding regarding the illness, but professionals involved in the diagnostic and treatment process are also equipped with no tools to facilitate these processes. Further, conversations pertaining to these health topics are often difficult, confusing, and overwhelming for children, exacerbating the lack of tools that put the child in a controlling and empowering position. Currently, we at Balma Health are working on the development of a Type 1 Diabetes Kit and are hoping to improve the educational gaps in one of the most prevalent chronic diseases. Further into the future, we hope to continue creating kits for the numerous chronic diseases plaguing over 15 million children in the U.S.

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