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Students complete fitness, nutrition pilot program

Date: 8/23/2011

Aug. 24, 2011

By Lori Szepelak


HOLYOKE — Twelve children recently wrapped up a six-week summer camp in the city — focusing on nutrition and fitness.

The pilot project was the brainchild of Karen Blanchard and Christine Burns of Providence Ministries for the Needy Inc., (PMN), with support from Nuestras Raices, Morgan School, Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council, New England Farm Workers' Council, Clowntique, and the Food Bank of Western Mass.

Burns explained during an interview with Reminder Publications that after attending a local Rotary Club meeting that discussed literacy loss experienced by inner city children during the summer, both she and Blanchard wanted to make a difference in Holyoke.

“The information from the Davis Foundation spokesperson was startling,” Burns said. “PMN decided we wanted to do something about it. Because PMN has a large focus on food insecurity, we wanted to do a fitness and nutrition through literacy project for ages 8 to 11.”

Burns noted that because many families who live in urban areas do not always have access to affordable fresh produce, community gardening is important to teach to children.

“Small bodegas may sell produce but it is rarely fresh and often expensive and there is also little selection,” Burns said. “Community gardening is very important to teach to kids because it helps them to not only have a healthy activity but also teaches them they can have some control over what they eat.”

Learning how to grow a lot of food in a small space is also a valuable lesson, Burns added.

Burns said that in addition to all of the food-related activities the children participated in, they also read a lot of recipes as part of their learning curriculum.

Ultimately, Burns and Blanchard hope that the children not only learned about food fitness, but also retained their literacy skills during the summer.

In late July, Juan Lopez, 18, was one of the VISTA volunteers teaching the participants about growing onions and sunflowers in the community garden at Nuestras Raices off Main Street. As the children sipped beverages and munched on sandwiches, Lopez taught them the importance of growing food and reaping the rewards of a fruitful harvest.

“I like this program and I love working with the kids,” Lopez said. “The program will not only change their lives, it also keeps them off the streets.”

Lopez also shared his love of learning and literacy, and the importance of getting a good education. He will soon be entering Framingham State University for his freshman year, majoring in business and marketing.

Lopez shared the summer camp responsibilities with Orlando Rodriguez, assisted by Youth Works counselors Iziada Gongolas and Lius Calderon. Youth Works counselors are overseen by PMN.

Burns explained that Lopez and Rodriguez were tasked with carrying out the pilot camp schedule and to supervise the children and the Youth Works counselors. Youth Works volunteers Gongolas and Calderon were an essential part of the pilot project, being the eyes and ears for Lopez and Rodriguez.

During the six weeks, children participated in a host of field trips, were provided with breakfast and lunch through Kate’s Kitchen, worked in the community garden space, and participated in activities at La Finca. Children also learned how to make healthy snacks with chef Ana Jaramillo, courtesy of the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council. Children learned how to make homemade healthy pizza, fresh fruit salads, hummus and more.

“We also accessed local parks and programs including Holyoke Rows,” Burns said. “The children learned to play games that use minimal supplies and they also learned safe indoor games that don’t involve a computer.”

Clowntique also gave children access to games, sports and craft supplies to round out the program’s curriculum.

On this one 80-degree afternoon, sisters Jamilis Gonzalez, 7, and Kenndalis Gonzalez, 10, were mesmerized by the sunflowers that towered over them.

“We like this program,” Kenndalis said, adding, “we’ve learned a lot.”

As her sister Jamilis concurred, it was evident that the goal set by Blanchard and Burns had been achieved.

Mission accomplished.

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