Participants in the 2010 Deer Run included youth from Milwaukee's Greater New Birth Church
and MATC instructor Judy Springer (far right side of photo).
It seems that every day, yet another alarming news story appears about the U.S. obesity epidemic. The stories are usually coupled with frightening predictions about future health problems today's youth will face because they exercise less and eat more unhealthy foods than young people of any previous generation.
MATC physical education instructor Judy Springer, Jeffrey Morzinski and Melissa DeNomie of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and youth and children's pastor Will Davis of Milwaukee's Greater New Birth Church collaborated to create a pilot project that would address these issues with the youth group at Davis' church.
After obtaining a grant from the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program, a component of the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin endowment at the Medical College of Wisconsin, they began designing their project in summer 2009. Called "A Faith Community GYM: Guiding Youth Movement for Sustained, Healthy Futures," the program taught the young people about physical activity, nutrition, health occupations careers, and spirituality as it relates to health. It also included physical activity and training leading to participation in a 5K (3.1 mile) run.
Youth participated in games such as double-dutch jump rope
and running to improve overall fitness.
Church in Medically Underserved Neighborhood
The Greater New Birth Church on Milwaukee's north side was chosen as the site for the project because it is located in a medically underserved neighborhood. In addition, Pastor Davis and his wife, Ciara, were enthusiastic about the project and have a strong relationship with the church's youth group.
The first phase of the project, facilitated by Morzinski, Springer, DeNomie and Davis, included training adult volunteers from the church as "health advocates." They worked as teachers and mentors for the young people and as communication liaisons with the parents. The 10-week GYM youth project was incorporated into the regular Wednesday night meetings of the youth group beginning in January 2010. Springer and nationally certified personal trainers facilitated the program. Youth learned about nutrition, played interactive physical activity games and practiced for the upcoming run at the Northside YMCA each week. The goal of the training was to build enthusiasm and pride in achievement as well as physical fitness. On average, attendance each week numbered 22 middle and high school students.
"The kids were overjoyed to learn more about their bodies and about health," said Pastor Davis. "The project gave them a new sense of self-appreciation and awareness of physical activity and lifestyle choices. The young people shared the information they learned with their families, their cousins and their friends. They're still excited about it. They tell me they are sleeping better, feeling better, having an easier time taking the stairs, and losing weight. They're getting compliments from others."
As part of a service learning project, students from Springer's Mequon Campus-based "An Active Approach to Wellness and Fitness" class met with the youth at the YMCA to help with record-keeping and to share their experiences at MATC. They talked with the young people about their own career goals, most of which were in the health occupations fields, and later each MATC student wrote a paper about their experiences.
"The program was such a good outlet for the youth," said MATC student participant Vicki Wenzel. "It made it possible for them to hang out with their peers and participate at their own pace with no pressure or competition. They fed off each other's enthusiasm. Judy Springer made it so much fun for the kids that they hardly realized they were exercising. We had to explain to them that many everyday activities are exercising."
"The effects of the program were so far-reaching, it was just amazing."
-- Pastor Will Davis, Greater New Birth Church
Working with MATC Students Outside the Classroom
Springer enjoyed including her class in the project. "Anytime I can interact with our students outside the regular class setting, it is such a joy," she said. "It was great for me to see them interacting with the kids. I also hope the MATC students will take what they learned home to their own children."
Members of the Rufus King High School cross-country team, a physician, a nurse and a health practitioner also met with the youth group to provide more information about scholastic and fitness-related goals, career planning and motivation.
During the May 5 Celebration Event, the young people were taken on
tours of MATC's Health Occupations classrooms.
Program Reached Beyond Youth Group
Pastor Davis said the parents enjoyed learning from the program as well. Many reported that they now use salt and sugar substitutes in their cooking. "The program reached so many people," he said. "The students are much more interested in health now. And they are showing interest in careers in medical fields. They take an interest in blood drives and blood pressure screenings at church now. The effects of the program were so far-reaching, it was just amazing."
A study of outcomes from the project showed that the youth learned a significant amount about nutrition, increased their activity levels, and experienced a training effect after the 10 training sessions, which indicated that their cardiorespiratory endurance seemed to increase. The youth also reported that they felt they had accomplished a great deal by participating in the program.
MATC hosted a capstone celebration event and awards ceremony. Approximately 60 people, including youth participants, their families and numerous guests, gathered at MATC's Milwaukee Campus in early May for the event. That evening, MATC health occupations specialist Marietta Love took the students and their parents on a tour of the campus facilities. Special focus was given to health occupations classrooms and laboratories, since a GYM Project goal was to expose the students to careers in health occupations that require two or fewer years of training.
Program organizers are applying for more grants, hoping to expand the program to more urban church groups. They are eager to work more closely with the parents in the future, particularly focusing on urging the parents to keep healthier foods in their homes.
"We hope we can be one avenue for improved health in Milwaukee," Springer said.
The pilot project recently received national attention from the National Wellness Institute. In late July, Springer and Pastor Davis presented an account of the GYM project at the institute's 35th Annual National Wellness Conference in Stevens Point, Wis. The GYM project received the 2010 National Wellness Conference Theme Poster Award of Excellence. The committee mentioned that the project most closely represented the theme of this year's conference, "Wellness Solutions that Work NOW: Best Outcomes Through Innovation, Caring, and Collaboration."