Friday, May 11, 2012

Working to keep kids healthy

A Cox Monett program that teaches children about health and exercise is expanding to Springfield.

The mission in health care is a seemingly straightforward one: improve the health of our community. In the hospital, we see every day how that mission plays out as we work to help the ill and the injured. But it takes more than fixing things when they go wrong to improve a community’s health. Health care isn’t limited to doctor’s offices, surgery suites and emergency rooms. On a recent Tuesday night in Mt. Vernon, the work of community health is being done in a school cafeteria, where kids are learning how proper nutrition and exercise can help them lead healthier lives.

“Can anyone give me an example of a good fat?” educator Lauren Holland asks the group of a dozen students and their parents. Hands shoot up. Peanut butter? Olives? The kids in attendance have done their homework. They’re participating in an event called CARDIAC Fun, which is the evening component of CARDIAC Kids, a program based at Cox Monett that works with fifth graders at several Ozarks schools. By the end of that Tuesday evening, the CARDIAC Fun participants have had a full refresher on nutrition, experienced a Crossfit-style workout, courtesy of sports science students at Missouri Southern, and learned how to make healthy burritos at home. All the attendees also leave with a free pedometer to track their steps as they go about their days at school and work.

Holland and Nancy Ridgley, Monett’s director of community wellness, have brought that comprehensive education to almost 6,000 students since the program began in 2003. Now, a grant from Kohl’s Cares is allowing the program to expand to Springfield. The Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids program will begin with a major health screening held at Kohl’s on Saturday, May 12. The event will be open to kids ages 6-18 and feature screenings for blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol.

The Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids program represents a major expansion for the wellness effort. While Monett’s CARDIAC (Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Area Children) Kids focuses on fifth graders through school-based programs, Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids reaches out to a wider age range through large community events open to the public. Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals worked with Kohl’s to secure the $45,020 grant, which will fund a series of public events for families this summer.

“Childhood obesity is such a major issue and I’m thrilled we can face it head on,” says Tim Siebert, executive director of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. “Preventing cardiovascular disease and diabetes fits right into the mission of CoxHealth and CMN Hospitals.”

Holland and Ridgley say the prevalence of obesity makes the need for public education clear. 

“Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids will reach a much broader audience, and it’s new territory for us, but it’s definitely needed,” Holland says. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, 39.4 percent of Missouri children are overweight, obese or at risk of obesity. Since 70 percent of obese children grow up to be obese adults, heading off that risk early is key to public health.  

That’s been the goal of CARDIAC Kids since its inception at Cox Monett in 2003. When Ridgley started in Cox Monett’s Wellness department, she worked with an administrator who was from West Virginia. At the time, West Virginia led the nation in obesity and Missouri wasn’t far behind. They talked about a program a pediatric cardiologist had developed in West Virginia and they decided to try something similar here. CARDIAC Kids was born and they soon began working with a dozen schools in Barry, Lawrence and Stone Counties.

“We’ve worked to expand from the beginning. We’ve always wanted to go statewide,” Ridgley says. “Our mission is to improve the health of our community and this reaches out directly to kids and their parents. The top risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease is being overweight – hopefully we can reverse that.”

Holland originally joined the program as an intern. She was excited to pursue her passion of working with children, but she wasn’t prepared for how widespread childhood obesity is.

“The more you do this work, the more you see the need,” she says. Holland points out that the current generation of children is among the first who are expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents, due in large part to preventable medical conditions. As they age, today’s children will likely see medical issues in their 30s that previous generations didn’t see until their 50s. Holland says we’ve become so accustomed to most people being overweight that we don’t really notice when children are “stocky.” When those kids step on the scale, they’re often at risk for obesity. “I want children to live long, healthy lives; I want them to outlive their parents.”

Over the last nine years, the Monett-based program has made positive changes for the students it serves. In the first year, 50 percent of the students in the program had BMIs above the 85th percentile, by 2010, that had dropped to 39 percent. CARDIAC Kids students are retested as sixth graders; in the ’08-’09 school year, 86 percent had shown improvement. By 2009-10, that number had risen to 91 percent.

Leaders say the kids are always excited to learn and curious about the information presented at the events. Children respond to the cues in their environment at home; they eat what their parents buy, and they pick up on how active their parents are, or aren’t. Getting to children early is key to helping them change their habits before they become ingrained.

“By fifth grade, kids are starting to make some of their own decisions,” Holland says. “In our programs they may see something different than their regular environment, and they may see things they can do themselves.”

The kids, in turn, can also influence their parents. Simply raising awareness through the CARDIAC Kids program can be enough to get parents to buy more fruit, plan healthier snacks and take more steps with their pedometers.

“I’m a firm believer that our obesity problem is rooted in how we raise kids. People like to blame it on fast food or school lunches, but it starts at home,” Ridgley says.

Ridgley and Holland say the expanded nature of the community-based program will produce a higher turnout and an opportunity to reach more high-risk youths. The community exposure will also be good, helping to raise overall awareness.

“There are so many people who don’t know the basics on being active and eating healthy, it still surprises me,” Holland says. “You may not be able to revolutionize everything about someone’s life, but you can plant a seed and help them make small changes.”

Ridgley says the most rewarding part of working in wellness is seeing how being healthy can improve people’s lives.

“It’s a night and day change, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too,” she says. “We want people to see Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids as an opportunity – it’s cutting edge, and free, so take advantage of it.”

Summer events

The Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids program will kick off with a public event on Saturday, May 12, in the Kohl’s parking lot on Independence Street in Springfield.

The event, planned for 8-11 a.m., will feature complete health screenings, including body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol. Screenings are available for kids ages 6-18 and the first 500 children screened will receive a $10 Kohl’s gift card.

The program includes two free Kohl’s CARDIAC Kids Family Fun nights in June:

Northview Center at Doling Park

6-7:30 p.m., June 14,

The Meyer Center

6-7:30 p.m., June 22,

The community events offer healthy snacks, activities, nutrition education and a free pedometer for participants.