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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.

Broadening horizons

The program focuses on low-income neighborhoods, where there often are fewer grocery stores and food choices.

“It’s a sad fact,” said Lauren Benoit, who coordinates Active Generations in Albany, “but many of these kids have never seen a kiwi or red pepper. Not only do we show them all these different foods, but we also send letters home each week, in English and Spanish, talking about healthy snacks like yogurt.” Eight classes, with eight to 15 children each, have been held in Albany since 2008.

Even picky eaters can be persuaded to taste new foods.

“Lauren introduced a great thing,” said Dew. “It’s called a ‘no, thank you’ bite. The kids have to try the food at least once. Then, if they don’t like it, they can say ‘no, thank you.’ ”

Gaining momentum

Eating right helps, but kids also need to exercise to maintain a normal weight.

Today, children don’t play outside as much. Even if safe recreation areas are available, the lure of TV, video and computer games is always there.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides detailed state-by-state statistics on obesity for adults and children. Their findings? Obesity rates for children 6 to 11 have more than doubled in the last 20 years.

Exercise is an important component of the program. In the Golden State, Bob Widerkehr had taken classes offered by OASIS. He volunteered with Active Generations in Escondido and was happy to help with the games. “The thing that the kids love the most is the parachute game,” said Widerkehr, 72. “It’s really just a big nylon square that they hold up and run in and out of, but it’s a lot of exercise,” he said. “Some of them actually work up a sweat playing the games.”

Widerkehr, the grandfather of four, is retired from the pharmaceutical industry. “I hope it’s as much fun for the kids as it is for me.”

Getting more than they give

Pauline Savage, 74, a retired banking professional, never had any children of her own. She volunteers with Active Generations in Pittsburgh.

She recalled an experience after the last class of one of the sessions at Fort Pitt Elementary. As the volunteers and children were saying goodbye, one boy asked if he could give her a hug.

“Before I knew it, they all lined up to give me a hug. You feel like the winner of the old TV show ‘Queen for a Day.’ ”

Making a Difference

Here’s where to get more information about becoming an Active Generations volunteer:

Escondido: Carolyn Collins, 760-839-4048 or
Los Angeles: Rosa Aguirre, 323-291-3414 or
San Diego: Kim Haedrich, 619-574-0674 or

Indianapolis: Mary Dorney, 317-253-1951 or

St. Louis: Candice Arriola, 314-862-4859 x21 or

New York
Albany: Lauren Benoit, 518-442-5587 or
Syracuse: Sally Terek, 315-464-1746 or

Pittsburgh: Shirley Fisher, 412-232-2023 or

Suzanne Tobin is an editor for the AARP Bulletin.

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