By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation
What’s a kid to do in the midst of a hot, humid Louisiana summer? When school’s out, and it’s too sweltering to play outdoors, are computers and TVs the only option?
Heck no! Especially if you live in the Gentilly area, where neighborhood kids are gathering every Saturday morning at the Arthur Ashe Charter School to stretch, dance, bike and karate chop their way through the day, thanks to a series of summer session classes offered by GRoW (Great Resources WhereY’at — a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported program).
“This is so great because it gets her off the couch this summer,” said Trenice Taplin, “Instead of her just sitting inside because it’s hot, this gets her up and active. And it’s teaching her ways to be healthy,too, like how to eat healthy and make healthy things she’ll want to eat, like fruit smoothies.”
Plopped down on a yoga mat next to her mother, Sanuja Taplin, 5, clad in braids and bright pink tights, took a break from learning her first plank and down dog poses to share her enthusiasm for the program, now in its fourth week.
“Are you enjoying the classes,” we asked?
She gave a quick nod and then smiled wide.
We took the liberty of interpreting that to mean, “Heck yeah!”
She’ll also be learning to ride a bike for the first time, during the afternoon biking class, her mom said. Arthur Ashe teacher Chris Riggleman shows the kids how to ride and lessons on safety and maintenance.
About a dozen kids showed up for last Saturday’s session, though the program is equipped to handle up to 100 kids. Project Leader Mat Schwarzman and his team of community leaders, teachers and volunteers are busy getting the word out about the new, free program, which offers a wide range of classes to enrich both the hearts and minds of its adolescent participants. Every hour, students rotated to a new class activity, from yoga to dance to bike riding, before breaking for a healthy lunch. Eventually, community service projects, reading groups and tutoring will also be offered, Schwarzman says, with the range of classes rotating periodically. Beyond this summer, GRoW will continue to offer weekend sessions, operating up to 40 Saturdays a year.
In dance class, teacher Amanunet Ashe challenged her kids to show up prepared to demonstrate a hip hop move. And while the kids were shy-going at first, one young man found the courage to take center stage and pop off of a move. We were totally impressed! Giggles and applause erupted as Ms. Ashe instructed her students to learn the new dance step.
“They’re excited to be here because this isn’t school, this is about fun,” Ashe said. “Fun, but with a twist. They’re going to learn something in the process, too.”
Between dance moves, she slips in lessons about health (like, say, naming the 5 things a body needs to stay healthy — eat fruits and veggies, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, exercise, and, of course, have some fun).
But before all the day’s classes could begin, Coach Wood ran the show, gathering up his rambunctious crew of kids and leading them in a series of challenges: boys against girls in a round of push-ups, student vs. student in squat sets… Then he lined them up and ordered them to shake it to the left, shake it the right, wiggle and groove until the heart really moved!
“Feel that,” Coach shouted out, fingers on the pulse at the base of his neck. “That’s your heart beating!”
Coach Wood also leads the online Health Nutz Nation program — which allows kids to keep up with fitness at home by checking in on the computer and getting physical fitness and nutrition assignments. By completing tasks under his NEWS system (Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sleep), the kids earn points,usually by sending in pictures of themselves engaged in each task (like the smoothie challenge — who can come up with a recipe for the yummiest fruit smoothie?). The boy or girl with the most points at the end of the 12 week program wins a prize (for example, a Target gift card to buy active gear or healthy food). And in an effort to engage the entire family, Coach comes up with clever tasks for his pupils, like…
“If they’re in the store with mom, I want them to say, ‘Hey mom, I can get extra points if we buy more vegetables and fruits,’ ” said Coach, who requires the kids to Instagram shots of the produce-laden buggies. “Or they can Instagram shots of the family eating a healthy dinner they’ve cooked together or walking or doing something active together. It’s all about encouraging healthy habits at home.”
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.