By Tina Dirmann
Staff Writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation
A few of us from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation family made it out to Gentilly last Saturday, where we were lucky enough to catch the official kick-off celebration for the new GRoW (Great Resources WhereY’at) program. And what a spectacular afternoon it was, to see more than 100 parents, kids and volunteers turn out to embrace this comprehensive community cooperative, entirely dedicated to well-rounded childhood development.
From family activities to tutoring programs to health/wellness education, GRoW is an ambitious attempt to fill-in the gaps school alone can’t meet. Mat Schwarzman, executive director for the New Orleans Kids Partnership and project leader of the GRoW program, calls it “re-knitting the neighborhood fabric,” noting that in today’s world, community ties have become frayed, with little to no interaction with our neighbors – the one-time natural playmates for kids. And as we know our neighbors less and less, community support, camaraderie and programs have diminished almost to the point of disappearing altogether.
It’s an updated spin on the whole “it takes a village” philosophy, with nearly 40 local agencies (including schools, libraries, community centers, non-profit groups) joining hands to create a “healthy wrap around support service” for Gentilly area families.
And, of course, this ambitious project is another example of our Foundation’sChallenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant dollars at work — $925,000 of GRoW’s $2.4 million budget comes from Challenge Grant money the group was awarded last fall.
To get the ball rolling, GRoW officials unveiled a slew of children (ages 5-16) and family programs, available every Saturday, for their first summer session: reading and riding club, community service projects, student cooking classes, family readings, a dance class, bike club, yoga, “Health Nutz” health club… And more…
We talked to Mat about Saturday’s launch, held at the Arthur Ashe Charter School, and about what he hopes the GRoW project will come to mean to the Gentilly community.
Q: This was a long time in planning – how does it feel to see it actually happening?
A: I would say our launch was everything I had hoped for and maybe even more than I was prepared for. We had over 100 people turn out and enrolled 17 children into our new program. That means we have almost 20% of our enrollment for the summer already filled-up, so, I feel very good about that.
Q: And it was born from the idea that people just don’t know their neighbors like they used to, and that’s been harmful for the overall development of a child. Right? Can you explain that further.
A: One unintended consequence of school choice, meaning parents don’t have to send their kids to the nearest school anymore but can bus or drive them to a school of their choice, is that people are spending more time traveling and less time walking or riding bikes.
Q: And not interacting with their neighbors, even at school, since your classmates may no longer be your physical neighbor.
A: Right. They don’t know their neighbors, their natural playmates, so out of school play time is reduced. On top of that, many kids don’t get home until 6 or 7 or 8 at night these days – that’s no longer the exception, that’s the rule now. And in this chaos of our community, there needs to be a kind of oasis of support that’s relatively close by – something that supports the re-knitting of the neighborhood fabric in this community.
Q: And this was the observation of several non-profit groups that you work with, including the New Orleans Kids Partnership?
A: Yes, there was this increasing awareness of the problem and it’s what made a bunch of non-profit service providers get together and decide to work together. When people are this disconnected and get home so late, it’s hard to even get them to come out to take advantage of our service. So, this became a real challenge and a real opportunity at the same time. We’ve re-thought how we send our kids to school, now we have to re-think how we provide the wrap-around support services.
Q: Is that why the classes and activities are held on Saturdays, instead of, say, in that traditional after-school time frame?
A: Yes, the key is to make this as accessible for families as possible.
Q: What’s the focus of the services you’re providing?
Families at the GRoW launch get in on the action with a bike ride!
A: We want to create a range of services that kids need beyond school. Everything from art classes to literature development, athletics, community service, career preparation, health and wellness… Getting good grades in school is important, but it’s not the whole child.
Q: Let’s talk about the health and wellness part of your program. You mentioned that you think “healthy habits” teaching has gotten a “bad wrap” with kids. What do you mean by that?
A: Because we teach healthy habits like it’s taking your medicine. You learn about healthy habits at the end of an index finger, with someone lecturing you. That, as much as anything, has a chilling affect, especially on children. Rather than using a stick approach, we want to use a carrot.
Q: You talk about using a “healthy habits wrap around support network” in your approach. What does that mean?
A: Rather than creating separate healthy habits programs, we are going to integrate healthy habits across the spectrum of service. Every activity we do, it’s going to have some relationship to increasing physical activity and healthy eating.
Q: I think a good example of that is your Riding and Reading group. It’s like a book club for kids with a bike ride thrown in.
A: Right, so it’s for 12-16 year olds, who will meet to read together and ride bikes together. The idea is to get kids together who may be reading a lot but are not exercising. So this is a way to get those kids together, to meet their peers with similar challenges, and help them experience physical activity in a social setting.
Q: I also like your Health Nutz Nation club, which is a great way to get kids who are normally in front of a computer a lot out and about.
A: It’s an online fitness club for kids 10-16. So, they’ll get a personal fitness coach that will consult with them online and make suggestions about healthy living activities and healthy eating. The trainer will help integrate in a personalized way those things they may already like to do, but adding in some reward when personal goals are met.
Q: A reward – that’s the carrot approach you mentioned! What’s the reward if they meet their physical fitness challenges?
A: Well, Target is one of our sponsors, so, our top participants will get a $100 healthy habits shopping spree at Target. We’ll identify 50 products they can buy, like healthy foods, physical activity equipment or fitness clothing.
Q: I know this is your summer session – but what’s next?
A: We’re still finalizing plans, but we are committed to providing between 30-40 Saturdays a year with some kind of programming. All the classes will be from 10 am to 3 pm on Saturdays and will include the class, a healthy lunch and sometimes a community service project.
Q: Well congrats again on the launch. You have every reason to be proud of this one!
A: I am very excited. We’re just starting, but it’s good. Everyone feels this is a good thing for the community.
Any child living within the Gentilly public school service area can participate in the GRoW programs. For more information or to sign up, go to www.nokp.org, or contact a GRoW representative at 504-220-2321.