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Local and Fun: Getting Michigan Kids Fit


Just for Kids Yoga in Palmer Park

Just for Kids Yoga in Palmer Park


Community-mobilized fitness initiatives are getting young people moving, combating child obesity and its related health problems – one neighborhood at a time. 
It's no secret that the health and wellness of Michigan children is lacking. In our March special report, we reported that in 2011, 12.1 percent of Michigan students in grades nine through 12 were considered obese. Another study showed 13.3 percent of children under age five were obese. Nationally, we rank 31 out of 50 in child well-being, according to the 2013 national Kids Count data book.
With only about a quarter of Michigan high school students meeting the national recommendation of at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity, it's not a stretch to draw a connection between the two data sets.
There is a wealth of child health advocacy groups in our state doing admirable work towards combating child obesity and other health issues. Our state government, too, is working to get Michigan kids fit through a variety of programs. Both have had successes, yet we still lag behind national averages in many child health indicators.
Where advocacy organizations and government programs often fall short is in effectively engaging the public in addressing health at the local level. Grassroots programs, on the other hand, invite communities and the people therein to participate, giving voice to affected populations.

What's the missing piece, then?
Agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute for Health, and the Center for Disease Control agree that the involvement of the affected populations is a critical component of any successful public health initiative.
Where advocacy organizations and government programs often fall short is in effectively engaging the public in addressing health at the local level. Grassroots programs, on the other hand, invite communities and the people therein to participate, giving voice to affected populations.
One such program in St. Clair County tackles the prevention of childhood health issues while promoting reading.  Walk for Summer Reading was started in 2009 by Dr. Sushma Reddy, a St. Clair County endocrinologist who has seen first hand the effects of diabetes.
"I had seen both the tragic impacts of obesity in children and come to understand the type of improvements children experienced when they participated in summer reading programs," says Reddy.
Statistics showed nearly one-third of children at a local kindergarten roundup were at high risk for becoming obese, and 40 percent of middle school students had a family history of diabetes. Reddy feared for an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in her community and decided to do something about it.
Since it began, Walk for Summer Reading has granted over $100,000 to St. Clair County schools where groups of children walk for 15 minutes per day, three days per week for six to eight weeks. In 2012, 4,448 students participated, and schools have obtained over 8,000 books with the grant.
The schools have flexibility and creativity in how they work toward the grant money. Some schools walk every day before class; others create an obstacle course for added activity. Others add music and dance or decide to walk at lunch.  The results have been impressive.
"Schools are replacing candy sales with walk-a-thons and starting running clubs. Timeliness to school has improved. Families have started to walk together," says Reddy. "We're seeing children get excited about taking control of their health and activity, all through a simple walking program."
The secret to overcoming some of the challenges inherent in grassroots initiatives, Reddy observes, is in the connections.
"You must be able to connect," she says. "To get the buy-in of the community, you need to be willing to work one-on-one in order to reach the community at large. That's where it starts." 
With the help of the St. Clair County Medical Society, Reddy approached one principal after another with the Walk for Summer Reading opportunity, until eventually a ripple effect took hold, with 23 schools participating since 2009.
St. Clair County Medical Society is the original sponsor and remains the primary funder, but supporting entities now include hospitals, businesses, and other local organizations.
"I've found that physicians and Michiganders in general are generous and embrace philanthropic activism in the effort to make our communities better," she says.
To the south of St. Clair County in the city of Detroit is a network of partners also determined to cultivate better outcomes for youth.
Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP) and the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC) are making headway with the involvement of local citizens, believing that residents have an institutional knowledge that makes them poised to address the challenges youth face around health and well-being.
"Schools are replacing candy sales with walk-a-thons and starting running clubs. Timeliness to school has improved. Families have started to walk together," says Reddy.
One of the ways these groups involve residents is through the Active Living Detroit Mini-Grant Program, where HEP, along with the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative (DFFC), provide grants to Detroiters to who are doing programming that involves physical activity.
Grant-winning projects run the gamut from fun and funky to environmentally focused. There's Fender Bender Detroit, a recycled bike rental library available to Detroit youth. Hustle for HOPE and Twisted Kicks Youth Fitness Program get kids dancing either the hustle or traditional African dances. Other projects like Bounce Back Detroit and Motor City Tennis Club engage children in more traditional sports like four square and tennis. Yoga and Zumba round out the diversity of offerings.

"Detroiters get wonderfully excited about these awards," says Julia Weinert, communications specialist for HEP and Detroit URC. "We're able to provide smaller amounts of money to groups like churches and neighborhoods that don't typically qualify for larger grant opportunities."

With some funding in pocket, residents quickly galvanize around community initiatives and take the lead in ensuring their success and longevity.

HEP is a community-based participatory research partnership with a focus on understanding and promoting heart health in Detroit neighborhoods. DFFC’s vision is to ensure that everyone in Detroit – especially the most vulnerable children – has equitable access to affordable, healthy locally grown food and opportunities to be physically active.

According to Cindy Gamboa, HEP project coordinator, the mini-grant program supports community members in taking ownership of implementing and sustaining projects in their neighborhoods. Says Gamboa. "We simply offer the resources to help them make their visions a reality."

Outside of the fitness connection, the common thread with grassroots projects – like the Active Living Detroit Mini-Grant program and Walk for Summer Reading – is collaboration, with multiple organizations and community members working together to address specific community health issues at the community level.
Through collaboration and partnerships, grassroots organizations are able to achieve what a more traditional approach to public health management might not be able to achieve. The end result: more Michigan kids avoid health issues related to a sedate lifestyle and build healthy habits around exercise. 
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