Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant funds new fitness equipment and education for Baton Rouge elementary schools

By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBS Louisiana Foundation

IMG_0073Physical education teacher Bonnie Richardson doesn’t just care about her students health.

The topic moves her to tears.

On a sunny fall day, as she gathered with her students on the Baton Rouge FLAIM school playground to break-in newly installed fitness equipment, she spoke of how the playground additions will impact kids.

​“This will open up an opportunity for our students to be stronger,” said the teacher, carefully watching students struggle up a pole and wrestle with their first pull-ups.

Understanding that school PE activities are often the only time her kids get real exercise, the impassioned teacher tears-up. She knows her students are already battling issues formerly seen in only older adults, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity.

​But those problems have not only permeated her campus.

They are a growing epidemic on elementary school campuses serving lower-income neighborhoods. And it’s the reason the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Louisiana (through their Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program) partnered with the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative in Baton Rouge to create Fresh Beginnings, a $2.2 million project aimed at improving health and fitness needs in the community.

IMG_0100-225x300​And a top priority for Fresh Beginnings is to target physical education programs in North Baton Rouge schools, offering new equipment, training programs and nutritional education.

Fresh Beginnings also partnered with Project Fit America to implement the new physical fitness programs. Although Fit America is a national charity, this is the first time the group will be in Louisiana, teaching Baton Rouge school children fun, innovative fitness games and programs. Even the teachers must undergo training, said Steve Cox, national in-service director for Project Fit America, who was in town with Project Fit Trainer Kim Berg on Oct. 15-16. The pair spent time with students and teachers at four schools (BRFLAIM, Buchanan Elementary, Winbourne Elementary and Ryan Elementary).

“We are just starting to understand that kids who grow up unfit, stay unfit,” Cox said. “Today, obese kids are developing diseases folks used to die of in their 60’s and 70’s. But the pendulum is swinging, as a society. We see this now and we’ve got to work to change it. Our kids deserve better.”


At Buchanan Elementary, Berg brought new three pound weighted hoola hoops and basketballs and ordered kids to run from workout station to workout station using the equipment to earn pieces of a skeleton puzzle. they couldn’t stop running, shooting, hoola-hooping until the puzzle was complete. And in the process, she threw out a few fitness terms, like, “Hey, who knows what your core is?’
“This is not just about exercise, but what each exercise addresses,” she said, emphasizing that their program isn’t just P.E. – it is Physical Eduation, in the truest sense of the term.

The school visits and equipment donations are just the beginning of a three year program that will eventually go beyond school campuses and into the surrounding community. Look for Mobile Markets to crop up soon – rotating grocery stores aimed at providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods void of farmer’s markets or full service grocery stores.
Learning more about the Fresh Beginnings initiative, BR FLAIM school principal Cheryl Miller nodded in approval.

“These are all ground up initiatives, and we are the ground,” she said, nodding toward her school. “Louisiana has been at the bottom of the obesity scale for too long. But if our kids see we think it’s important to be healthy, that we are serious about this, then it will stick. We will teach them life long skills.”

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