Christa Hyson: ‘Keeping my sunshine.’


Christa Hyson had worked in public health for years, navigating government, health statistics, and community needs. But when she moved back to Cincinnati, she was struck by the devastation that the opioid epidemic was causing on her hometown. She started researching prevention programs and discovered a curriculum called HOPE (Health and Opioid Abuse Prevention Education).  

With the support of a grant from People’s Liberty, Hyson created a pilot program at Oyler School, a Cincinnati Public School in Lower Price Hill. The prevention program, which she called Not Even Once, aimed to give kids knowledge and tools to avoid drug experimentation or other dangerous scenarios.

We talked to Hyson in the bright, modern offices of People’s Liberty, which the organization calls a “philanthropic lab,” overlooking Findlay Market.

Interview by Suzanne Wilder. Photography by Jennifer Mahuet.

Tell us about yourself.

I recently moved back to Cincinnati in August of 2016. Before that, I had worked for the Army education system and then in public health. My then-husband was in the Army, and I had the opportunity to live in other countries and travel. It was definitely a blessing. When I moved back to Cincinnati, I was in the phase of putting my life back together after a divorce. I was very fortunate to get a job quickly. And I started working for the Cincinnati Health Department in August of 2016. I’m responsible for digital health communication, and working with the Board of Health.

Part of my job is attending City Council meetings. I was constantly noticing the dialogue about opioid abuse: What are we doing to take care of our first responders, and what are we doing to decrease compassion fatigue, and what are we doing to take care of our police and our firefighters, which are all very important essential conversations to have.

The whole focus of public health is on prevention, and that's where my training is: being proactive.

You know to approach a problem differently to not have to deal with it later on. When I started doing research, especially in the state of Ohio, I didn't see much prevention education specifically geared toward opioid or heroin abuse. But certain school districts and certain age groups are seeing it more often than not. So I kind of did my research on what can I do as a public health person to try to have some impact on this.

So I had cold-emailed – literally through Google – Dr. Kevin Lorson, and he was creating and in the process of piloting the HOPE curriculum, which stands for Health and Opioid Prevention Education. (Dr. Lorson is a professor and the physical education program director at Wright State University, as well as a committee member of the Ohio Joint Study Committee on Drug Use Prevention Education.)

And I came across People's Liberty grants. I had heard of People's Liberty originally because a guy I went to high school with was a Haile Fellow: Brad Cooper. He built tiny homes in OTR that are really sustainable, tiny living – more affordable urban living. And so I decided to apply for a People's Liberty grant to pilot the curriculum in Cincinnati.


How were you able to incorporate this prevention work at your day job?

So the reason I was able to get into Oyler so quickly was because the Cincinnati Health Department already has a school-based health center there. There's a vision center; there's a dental center; there is a medical center, and then they do referrals for behavioral health, as well. So it's kind of like a one-stop shop for care. Oyler gave me the summer phase, like okay, you can come into summer school and try out this program. And I came back for the fall semester from August through December, every Wednesday after school. Ages 9 to 13 were the target, and they were nominated by teachers as peer leaders.

You know, the kids already know what’s going on. They need to have the tools and resources to make good and healthy decisions.

And that's what I like about this curriculum. It gives you scenarios. What would you do in this situation? How would you react? And then we talked about things. I barely said the word heroin in class.

A lot of it was: How can you be assertive? How do we stand up for ourselves – in a way that we don't hurt others? How do we set a good example? Or how does this decision or choice or action impact me? How does it impact my family? And how does it impact my community? Because some of them were little enough to understand good decision-making. But some of my older kids really grasped the concept of physical, social, and emotional health – and the impact and how those three things go together.

Our rules were to listen, to be respectful, and to ask constructive questions. That was the thing. And we learned what a constructive question was and what it wasn't. But then also one of the things I would always say is, “The lessons we learn, we take outside. But the things we discuss stay in here.” And that's how you build trust.

The grant funding ended in December, but I’m hopeful that policymakers in Ohio recognize the benefits of prevention education like HOPE and can adopt it in schools all over the region.

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What surprised you about coming back to Cincinnati after living in Germany, Colorado, and elsewhere?

I moved away in 2009 and came back in 2016. The transition of Over-the-Rhine was the biggest thing. As a public health person, I think about, how were the people displaced? I always think of, well, what was a more equitable approach?

I came back to Cincinnati for family, number one, but it was a chance to reconnect with people. I have a lot of friends from college that went to Xavier here but they're from, you know, Columbus and Missouri and Indiana and Florida and D.C. and New York, but they all bought houses here. They got married. They stayed. They invested their lives here, because it's a place where you can thrive and have world-class resources but not be consumed with the hustle and bustle of a big city.

I feel like there's a lot of value in doing good work where you came from, because I feel like that's a lot of where our country's issues stem from: climbing the hierarchical ladder and trying to achieve something that may make a massive, great amount of wealth. But does it truly impact a community or change a society? So I have a lot of respect for individuals that gain skills and schooling and resources, but then take it home to build on that. That's pretty powerful, taking care of where you're from. I think it's one of the most respectful and highest-calling things you can do, and it shows the value of family and things like that.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

Military spouses, as a whole, are some of the most hardworking, badass... They put up with the most amount of shit; the skin you develop is thick.

Your ability to care and love only exceeds that of the previous month. You're constantly growing and changing. I commend the hell out of military spouses.

And I really looked up to my grandmother. And I feel like the world would benefit from an Italian grandmother, because she takes you to places and encourages you to do good. But then she also can smack you across the face if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be. The work ethic, the nurturing – it’s very militant. But it's also very caring.


Do you have a motto for your life?

So like my whole life's motto is, “Keeping my sunshine.” I've had bad, unfortunate things happen to me, but I've never let it steal my joy. I've never let it make me be the victim, because that's not me. And it's just not how I choose to live.

Another motto of mine is, “Get shit done.” I wanted to remain in contact with my military family, because there's so many people and places and things that mean a lot to me. So I went out and I joined Team Rubicon, which is a disaster relief nonprofit that takes the skills of veterans, first responders, and emergency-trained professionals. So I have a ton of training in emergency communications and public health preparedness and I have gotten the opportunity to travel and do service projects and help other people, and it's kept me connected to the military. I actually spent my birthday this year in Houston cleaning up people's houses from Hurricane Harvey.

Now that the grant program has ended, what are you focusing on this year?

Trying not to be a people-pleaser. A lot of my job is caring about populations that people don't care about. But then I also exhaust myself by trying to juggle and take care of too many things. I need to say yes more strategically and not stretch myself too thin. I’m going to help advise for future HOPE curriculum lessons and I'm continuing to volunteer for Team Rubicon as the state engagement coordinator. And I like to run. So I'm going to train for another half-marathon. And try to make as much soap as possible!