From Milan to the Tsuut'ina Nation - One grad's experience

From the runways of Milan to the hallways of a school in Tsuut'ina Nation, recent graduate Devon Guy is passionate about helping people develop a healthy relationship with food.

Rachel Harper - 22 November 2017

As an international model, Devon Guy is used to having all eyes on her. But this month, Guy swapped out designer threads for a graduation gown, and her catwalk was the stage of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

Starting out as a model in Milan, Italy, Guy has worked in the fashion industry since she was 16-years-old. Originally interested in studying engineering, it was her experience as a model that sparked an interest in health and nutrition.

"Working in the fashion industry, you feel pressure to maintain a low body weight. The competition is so fierce that people are motivated to do whatever it takes to be successful," explains Guy, master of public health (MPH) in health promotion graduate. "I worked with models with eating disorders, and girls who damaged their hormones and reproductive health-all to be underweight to fit the clothes. I never wanted to be in that place."

After being exposed to the pressures of the industry, the experiences of her colleagues and the constant barrage of messages from the media, she knew that there had to be a better way-one that wouldn't put people's health in jeopardy. It inspired her to pursue an undergraduate degree in nutritional sciences while continuing her modelling career part-time.

"I became passionate about helping people-not just models-develop a healthy relationship with food," says Guy. "When you get away from the feelings of guilt and restricting yourself, and instead enjoy food in a mindful way, the positive impact that can have on your life is remarkable."

Now Guy is using this passion as a health education coordinator and certified diabetes educator for the Tsuut'ina Nation, a First Nations reserve southwest of Calgary on Treaty 7 territory. For the past three years, she has led the implementation of a health education program called, "Guja," meaning "healthy" or "good" in Tsuut'ina language.

Guja was developed in conjunction with the Tsuut'ina Nation, with emphasis on community priorities, like translating resources into Tsuut'ina language; incorporating culturally relevant names, language and food; or using local artists for graphics and design.

Through partnership and collaboration with the local school, Guja focuses on diabetes prevention and health promotion initiatives for children and youth.

"Relationship building is one of the most important lessons we learned," says Guy. "When we first started working in the school, we were simply known as the 'healthy girls.' Now, our relationship has evolved with the children, staff and the community, where we can work hand-in-hand and share ideas to achieve the best outcomes for everyone."

For instance, the school offers breakfast and a hot lunch to all students every day, so the health impact these meals have is tremendous-and the team's relationship with the cooks is instrumental. Some of the cooks have been working in the school for more than 25 years. They have been willing and eager to work with the health education team to develop healthier menu choices that include vegetables at every meal, whole wheat breads and cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages.

In addition to this, Guy sees a difference in the students she works with.

"The kids are excited and passionate about learning about food," says Guy. "When they make something with their own hands or harvest vegetables from the community garden, we see their excitement in telling their peers or family members."

But perhaps most importantly, Guy has seen a shift in their mental health.

"As their relationship with food and health changes, so does their self-efficacy and self-confidence. It's been extremely rewarding to see the students and community embrace the cultural importance of health and strength and be a small part of that."

"Education is powerful," says Guy. "And healthy food and lifestyle is for everyone-from Milan to Tsuut'ina Nation and everywhere in between."