TAMPA — Grace Boisvert looked at the pictures of melanoma on the More Health display in her fourth-grade classroom and had one thought: "That's what's on my leg."
The then-9-year-old listened as instructor Maureen Burke from More Health, a nonprofit that delivers interactive health education lessons, told her class about the importance of sunscreen and the prevention of skin cancer.
Grace went home and told her father what she had learned. At first her parents doubted their daughter's claims. A 9-year-old with melanoma? It just didn't seem right.
The pediatrician had misdiagnosed the growth as a wart and prescribed treatment that only inflamed the area. So her parents decided it was time to see a dermatologist. The doctor confirmed what Grace had known from the day she saw the More Health poster.
She had melanoma.
Nearly two years later, Grace, now 11, finished her last shot of treatment and attended the inaugural breakfast for More Health on Thursday at Higgins Hall in Tampa. She ate yogurt and fruit and listened as board members discussed the importance of the program that brings interactive health education into the schools.
"More Health pretty much saved my life because if I didn't catch this at the time I did, the treatment might not have worked," said Grace, who had her epiphany at Bauder Elementary School in St. Petersburg and now is a sixth-grader at Seminole Middle School.
She said the best part about More Health is that it's engaging, interesting and fun. Her classmates were always eager to get involved each time the program came to her school.
More Health presents 25 different lessons at schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Trained professionals lead 45-minute sessions on topics ranging from bicycle safety and dental health to nutrition and gun safety.
"Everything is really colorful and hands-on," said instructor Suzanne Gaber, who teaches bicycle safety. "The kids are really engaged."
The programs are aimed at elementary, middle school and high school students, and vary in depth and seriousness depending on the students' ages. By high school, the presentations target subjects such as distracted driving, organ donation and sexually transmitted diseases.
"There's a little bit of shock value when you come into the school," said instructor Adrienne Stuart. "These are serious lessons. There's a lot of life-and-death lessons that go on in the high schools."
The lessons are developed in accordance with state standards, said executive director Karen Pesce Buckenheimer. Instructors make health education come alive for children while helping teachers mark off key benchmarks in their curriculum.
More Health provides its programs at no charge to the school districts, opting to obtain funding from local businesses, foundations and state and federal grants. Since it started in 1989, it has informed 2.8 million students in Tampa Bay.
Pesce Buckenheimer said that one of the program's best aspects is how it motivates children to take lessons home to their family and friends. It's not unusual for kids who go through the dental health class to ask for extra toothbrushes to give to their siblings.
Even though Grace had the final shot of her treatment one week ago, she remains a serious advocate for skin protection among friends and family.
Her youth group at Anona United Methodist Church in Largo took a trip to Adventure Island recently.
"I stood up in front of them and told them to bring sunscreen," Grace said. "I'm still always going to wear sunscreen, I'm going to remind people and I'm going to remember that I was very, very lucky."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.