Unsung Hero: Regina Erskine, teaching life lessons through blood
PORTLAND — "There's never a dull moment with this age group, that's for sure," said Regina Erskine, who has been teaching health at Lyman Moore Middle School since 1989.
"I've always been interested in health," said Erskine, a native of Dixmont, "and they didn't teach health in the schools when I was growing up."
Spurred by her interest in health education, Erskine earned her undergraduate degree in Health and Family Life Education at the University of Maine and her master's degree in Health Education at Southern Illinois University.
She covers a wide range of health-related issues in her classes: diet, nutrition, exercise, substance abuse (drugs, tobacco and alcohol), sexual development and family life.
"Everything I teach I can relate to the students' everyday lives," Erskine said.
In 2007, she helped launched an innovative program in which students started a blood drive for the American Red Cross at the school.
"It was really an interdisciplinary effort," Erskine said. "Science teachers talked about the circulatory system; social studies teachers talked about national disasters and the Red Cross; math teachers graphed blood types; and health teachers discussed first aid and CPR."
Students got involved in every aspect of the drive. They solicited family and friends to sign up as donors by making phone calls and writing letters; they sat at the registration table on the day of the drive, and sat with people during the required rest periods after the blood had been drawn. They even created a slide show for donors to watch while they were waiting to give blood.
That first year, the Lyman Middle School Blood Drive collected 122 units of blood. "People at the Red Cross were amazed," Erskine recalled.
Thanks in large part to that success, half a dozen other middle schools around Maine have launched blood drives of their own. Ellen Russell, director of Maine operations for the American Red Cross Blood Services, said "We're trying to add more schools, because these programs introduce young people to the Red Cross at an early age and make them more likely to give when they become eligible."
The blood drive benefits the students as well as the Red Cross.
"The kids learn about setting goals and making things happen. They also feel important, because they're helping save lives," Erskine said.
Erskine also models terrific life experiences for the students. She has completed 10 marathons, including two Boston Marathons and the Pike's Peak Marathon. One year she took a sabbatical and walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trial.
"I say to my students, 'stay healthy and you can do these things,'" she said.
In 2003, Erskine was diagnosed with celiac disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy.
To raise money for research on the disease, she and a friend embarked on a cross-country bicycle trip. She got hit by a pickup truck while riding through Arkansas ("don't get sick in Arkansas," she advised), although her strong will got her back to Maine on the bicycle. She has her disease under control, and she has maintained her active life style.
Erskine derives great satisfaction from teaching health to middle school students.
"I'm teaching principles they can use throughout their lives," she said. "I love going to the gym to work out and seeing some of my former students there."
On the other hand, she said, when she sees a former student puffing on a cigarette, the student inevitably looks embarrassed.