Seven middle school girls stood awkwardly in the center of a linoleum-floored rec room, glancing from their reflections in the mirrored wall to the unfamiliar college student standing before them. Five weeks later, these tentative adolescents danced in rhythmic synchronization to their favorite new hip hop aerobics routine, wishing the session didn’t have to end.
Moving Children Toward Healthy Living
As director of community relations, Ginny Dadaian, MPA, loves discovering new ways to help Azusa Pacific University serve its surrounding community. So when Julie Pusztai, MSN, RN, APU’s director of the Azusa Neighborhood Wellness Center, shared that moms attending the center’s walking program voiced concern about their adolescent daughters’ inactivity and expressed interest in some type of fitness program available for them, too, Dadaian began brainstorming about innovative options. She came up with the idea of educating middle school girls about the importance of health through an aerobics program taught by an APU student.
Dadaian secured funding through a generous grant from Canyon City Foundation, which promotes social welfare, education, and the arts in the city of Azusa. She then teamed up with Sharon Lehman, Ed.D., chair of APU’s Department of Exercise and Sports Science, to implement the program. Lehman enlisted Diana Rudulph ’03, M.A ’05, assistant professor. “Her expertise as a certified personal trainer combined with her passion for community health, fitness, and kids made her perfect for the task. She is a multifaceted, multi-talented, and inspirational young faculty member. I knew she would inspire kids in Azusa to get fit,” said Lehman.
An impressive collaboration between several APU offices and Azusa Recreation & Family Services led to the launch of the first Girls on the Move session in October 2009. Rudulph recruited senior liberal studies major Veronica Ramos ’09 as the first student instructor and worked with her to develop the program’s fitness-based instructional content. (Ashlee Cervantes ’11 took over for the three spring sessions.) Julianne Smith ’06, MBA ’10, coordinator for community-based federal work-study programs, coordinated all of the administrative details, Pusztai contributed to the nutrition education component, and Dadaian advertised the program throughout the city. This initiative also received the heartfelt support of Azusa Mayor Joseph Rocha. An avid advocate for health and wellness in his city, Mayor Rocha appeared with his wife and grandkids at the Girls on the Move kickoff to encourage the students to achieve their fitness goals.
Hip Hop, Health, and Positivity
Girls on the Move links the teens’ love of hip hop music with what program organizers hope they grow to love—exercise. “Incorporating what the girls think is cool into a workout teaches them that exercise is not just about sports or running, but it can be something that you really enjoy,” said Rudulph. Half of each session focuses on learning a hip hop aerobics routine, while the other half centers on doing a variety of fitness exercises, including core training and band work.
Feedback from Girls on the Move proved so positive that in January, Kids on the Move was launched, targeting first- through fifth-grade girls and boys. Like its sister program, Kids on the Move meets one hour, twice a week for five weeks. Physical education major Kristen Jenks ’11 jumped at the chance to impact local youth as the hands and feet of the program. With the help of her two roommates, Jenks engaged 30 energetic elementary kids with a variety of activities such as cardio stations, obstacle courses, and the ever-popular game of tag. She also implemented at-home fitness challenges aimed at keeping the kids and their families moving throughout the entire week.
Reversing the Obesity Epidemic One Child at a Time
Kids on the Move arrived at an ideal time for the children of Azusa. An assessment conducted by the district nurse found that 34 percent of second graders in Azusa Unified schools are obese, according to Center for Disease Control guidelines. The prevalence of childhood obesity and the Kids on the Move participants’ desire to get fit made a lasting impression on Jenks. “So many children want to make a healthy change that you don’t even have to ask them to do anything; they ask you what they can do. Those kids leave the biggest mark.”
Efforts to make Azusa youth more physically active and health conscious align with a growing trend. First Lady Michelle Obama started Let’s Move, a nationwide campaign aimed at solving childhood obesity within a generation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest philanthropy devoted to improving the health of all Americans, is also a key leader in this area, committing $500 million to reverse the epidemic by 2015.1 And 2009 marked a banner year for state policies designed to prevent childhood obesity with at least 80 bills signed into law.2 As the nation rallies to help states, communities, and families make positive changes toward health, Azusa Pacific partners with its neighbors to change too.
Someone passing by the North Recreation Center at Memorial Park that day last fall would have seen any indication that something extraordinary had taken place. Yet, the sweaty brows and broad smiles of seven young ladies marked the successful completion of one small fitness program, and the beginning of a new way of living for the people of Azusa.
Becky Keife is a freelance writer in Glendora, CA. firstname.lastname@example.org