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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fit Kids Field Day Caps SHU Service Learning Experience

Fit Kids Field Day Caps SHU 
Service Learning Experience
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Sacred Heart University)

Norwalk, CT – Health lessons and exercise wrapped up in grin-driving fun.

That was the scene at Fox Run Elementary School late Wednesday afternoon May 18 as Fit Kids Field Day capped the fourth year of the highly interactive Fit Kids afterschool program delivered by Norwalk Health Department, Sacred Heart University and Norwalk Community College.

Designed to teach elementary school students about nutrition, physical activity and healthy choices, the program runs each year from January to May, with an hour-long session held twice a week. The culminating Field Day integrated some of the programming taught during the year while adding carnival-style elements that included face painting, an obstacle course, freeze dancing, arts and crafts and a food group relay. Eighty students in all, grades K-5 from Fox Run, Columbus and Cranbury elementary schools, participated in the Field Day.

Wendy Bjerke, Clinical Asst. Professor of SHU’s Exercise Science program as well as director of the university’s Wellness program, said Fit Kids has been an excellent opportunity for SHU Exercise Science undergraduates, who have served as program guides, to gain service knowledge. “They have learned about exercise programming for children, health promotion and health education, which is all within the context of my Exercise Physiology course,” she said.

Bjerke added that the collaboration with the Dept. of Health included data collection and assessment of health indicators such as Body Mass Index (BMI), performance measures and health behaviors. Program participants, for example, take a quiz pre- and post-program to determine if there has been a positive change in health attitudes and behavior. Collected data is disseminated at regional conferences that promote health and fitness.

Tim Callahan, Norwalk’s Health Director, spoke highly of the collaboration between the city and SHU. “We’ve had a partnership with SHU for several years now,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity for their students to get involved with younger people and teach them about the impact of nutrition and physical activity,” he said. “They also serve as great role models.”

Callahan added that Bjerke, a Norwalk resident, brought SHU to the Fit Kids table, stressing its importance as a lifestyle influencer. “Kids are cooped up in school six to seven hours a day and need to have some vigorous physical activity,” he said. “By incorporating these valuable lessons at this early age, kids are more likely to become healthier, physically active adults.”

As participating SHU students had just graduated or left for summer break, students from Norwalk High School’s B.R.O.W.N. (Bears Reaching Out Within Norwalk) team, as well as volunteers from Pepperidge Farm, were on hand to help guide Field Day activities.

Pepperidge Farm’s Manjita Kulkarni said the company was glad to assist. “We’re headquartered in Norwalk and do a lot of community outreach,” she said. “We’re also all about good health.”

Of course, Bjerke was front and center amid the game stations, guiding in particular the Food Group Relay Race, one of the best integrations of health education and physical activity onsite. “This is based on the new food pyramid developed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control,” she said. “Children organize into teams, with names like the Kool Kiwis and Bodacious Blueberries, pick ‘foods’ at random from a container and then race across the gym to place the food in the correct food group bag. It’s a great way to reinforce their learning while they have fun and exercise at the same time.”   

YMCA: A Family Destination for Nearly 50 Years

Man About Town
YMCA: A Family Destination for Nearly 50 Years
(column for May 27 Fairfield Citizen news)
By Mike Lauterborn

Among the primary and longest-standing organizational anchors in Fairfield is the YMCA. Its current facility at 841 Old Post Road has served the local community for nearly 50 years. Executive Director Nick Willett met with me on a recent weekday afternoon to share some history, provide an inventory of spaces and programming, and talk about its mission.

“Initially, we were an extension of the Greater Bridgeport YMCA,” said Willett. “There was a private Victorian-style home on the current site that the Y took over, where it conducted meetings in the years 1953 to 1963 to plan the establishment of a new facility. The chairman at that time was Frederick Pope, Jr.”

In 1963, the house was razed and the new brick structure went up under the guidance of Fairfield architect William Henry Jackson and Bridgeport general contractor J. Zandonella. Completed and furnished at a cost of $615,400, the Fairfield Branch YMCA “Family Center” officially opened May 1, 1964, with a membership of 225 families.

In introductory promotional literature, the new Y was billed as a center to “meet the leisure time needs of the whole family. Mom and Dad, Sister and Brother will find programs devised to help them develop new skills, better health and keener minds… molded by Christian influences.” Membership fees were $74/yr. for an individual and $84/yr. for a family.

The initial footprint included a weight room, 25-yard four-lane pool, locker rooms and classrooms. In the 1980s, the building was expanded to include a full basketball court/gymnasium. Today, the 22,000-square-foot complex also incorporates two fitness studios, a childcare program, meeting room and outdoor playground area.

“I joined this location in Feb. 2008, essentially coming from the Westport Y and a Sr. Director position at Westport’s Camp Mahackeno,” said Willett. “I’ve always been with the Y and really grew up with the Y, as a member in a rural Illinois town. It was the only formal form of recreation in the area. I went through pretty much every program they had and my dad was a huge Y guy. I learned how to swim there, participated in Indian Guides, went to summer sleep-away camp. It formed my being, instilling in me Y principals like honesty, caring, respect and responsibility.”

Today, the Fairfield Y has over 3,000 full facility members and 7,000 community members who take advantage of specific programs. “Our goal is to listen to the community’s needs,” said Willett. “What we’ve heard is that parents want their children to learn how to swim, be healthy and to have a positive social outlet. We adapt to the changing needs of the community.”

Willett said obesity is a huge current issue, which the Y is addressing with programs like Activate America to get people fit and working out. The Y also offers youth and teen fitness classes and a swim program that attracts over 900 children to each quarterly session. To help families in need afford some of these programs, it gives out over $65,000 in financial aid.

“As well as being a health and wellness destination, the Y is a social hub offering such activities as the very popular Neon Nights which attracts kids ages 9-12 for a fun dance mixer; and free Family Fun Nights wherein families can swim and play games,” said Willett. “Our Adventure Guides program draws over 150 families for everything from pine car derbies to campouts.”

Willett said the Y serves local citizenry on so many levels. “Our new tagline is ‘For Youth Development, For Healthy Living, For Social Responsibility’, which sums up what the Y has always been about,” said Willett.

Another Man About Town excursion completed, I tumbled from the Y and sprang back into the local area to capture other key Fairfield community hubs.