Feature Article - March 2010
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Steps Toward Wellness

Communities & Facilities Take Action to Improve Health

By Dawn Klingensmith

Tap Existing Resources

Although a tailored, targeted approach to health promotion is critical among certain demographics, when it comes to wellness programming, there are strong national kids' programs that can be implemented at the local level. Likewise, programs that are already being administered by various organizations in a community can be brought together to build robust adult and senior wellness programs.

One such national model is Sajai Foundation's Wise Kids program, which encourages kids to make healthy food choices and stay active. A sister program, Wise Kids Outdoors, shares those objectives and also fosters an appreciation for nature. Wise Kids kits are available to parks and recreation departments and other organizations, and are intended to enhance existing summer camp and after-school programs. The kits include everything needed to successfully implement the program: student workbooks, games, pedometers and learning aids, plus a training DVD and manual for leaders.

The program teaches children nutritional basics such as the food pyramid, reading food labels and portion control. It also teaches how exercise benefits the body. The physical activities tend to reinforce the lessons. For example, if students are learning about the heart, the physical activity might be an obstacle course modeled on the circulatory system. Children moving balls through the course gain an understanding of how the heart pumps blood and nutrients throughout the body. "We make the activities fun and noncompetitive so all kids can play, not just the athletic ones," said Melissa Hanson, president and CEO.

Wise Kids Outdoors adds an environmental component. For example, kids might get exercise by creating and caring for vegetable gardens or collecting litter along a nature trail and then sorting the trash from the recyclables. Learning aids provided in the kit include backpacks for collecting treasures like leaves and pinecones, a magnifying glass, and seed packets.

Grants from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) enabled 49 community organizations (YMCAs, parks and recreation departments, school systems) to implement the program in 2009, bringing the total number of participating communities to 80 across 32 states. (The Sajai Foundation's Web site lists the top 10 grant providers by state for this type of programming.)

Realizing that Sacramento, Calif., had a range of wellness programs for seniors, but that they were scattered, the city's parks and recreation department helped knit them together as part of its 50+ Wellness program. Biannually, the department sends out a 16-page newsletter that lists not only its own programming but also resources and events available to seniors through various other organizations—anything from lectures to salsa lessons. The newsletter also includes articles about health and is mailed to 6,000 individuals as well as area agencies serving the senior population, for a total press run of 10,000.

Parks and recreation departments exist in just about every municipality in the United States, and they can provide wellness programs for people from all walks of life—that is, if they foster relationships with hospitals, nonprofits and other organizations to expand their resources and broaden their reach.