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Fighting Childhood Obesity

Volunteers engage kids in nutrition and exercise after school

At an afterschool program in Albany, N.Y., children keep their eyes on a gymnasium door, eagerly waiting for it to open.

When the 12 elementary school students are admitted to the gym, three volunteers, all 55 or older, are ready with snacks—fruit, trail mix, smoothies. When everyone is settled, Regina Dew, 63, gets their attention.

“I know we studied some things last week,” she says, “but I have a poor memory, so can one of you remind me what we talked about?”

It’s a ploy she’s developed to see how much information about healthy eating and exercise the students remember.

Later she explains her reasoning. “Let’s face it, they want to eat and play,” says the retired social services worker. “The lesson—we just have to squeeze that in.”

Dew is a volunteer for Active Generations. The intergenerational program is designed to curb obesity by teaching children in third through fifth grades about nutrition and regular exercise in 90-minute afterschool sessions. The students and their mentors meet once a week for eight weeks, and each session includes a nutrition lesson, a healthy snack and games for exercise.

OASIS—a nonprofit that offers classes and service opportunities to people over 50 in more than 20 cities—launched pilot projects in Pittsburgh and San Antonio in 2007. In February, the group won a $313,000 grant from the WellPoint Foundation to add more cities. Besides Albany, Active Generations is active now in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and three cities in California—Escondido, Los Angeles and San Diego.

A life-changing program

Janice Tyler had volunteered for years as a tutor for OASIS. When her hometown of Pittsburgh became one of the pilot sites for Active Generations, Tyler, 65, signed up. Though 45 volunteers have been trained, only about 17 are active mentors who help with the 14 classes each year.

“It helped me a lot because I have diabetes. When I started as a volunteer for Active Generations, I really didn’t know much about nutrition either. I’d never been obese, so the diabetes had just crept up on me.”

Tyler said the program “helped so much that I am no longer on medication. I’m just eating right. I walk three times a day and exercise. I’m teaching the kids, but I’m also teaching myself. I’m learning right along with them.”

As for the children, here are two thank-you messages written to volunteers in Indianapolis:
• “I’m so very happy that you helped me learn a healthy diet.”
• “Did you know I lost a lot of pounds?”

Sarah Lovegreen, an OASIS health manager, overheard this exchange as a mother and son were leaving an Active Generations session in St. Louis.

“Mom, I love broccoli!” said the son.

“Well, we can get you some more!” said his mother.

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