Wellness Warrior Paula Bruchhaus, PE teacher at Prien Lake Elementary School in Lake Charles, La.
Wellness Warrior Paula Bruchhaus, PE teacher at Prien Lake Elementary School in Lake Charles, La.

By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

Stump. That’s what they used to call Paula Bruchhaus as a kid. Stump. Because, well, she was short. And round.

“It hurt,” Bruchhaus said of the moniker. “And I never forgot it… I battled weight my entire life.”

A battle, we are proud to report today, that she has decidedly won. Now, Bruchhaus — a physical education teacher at Prien Lake Elementary School in Lake Charles — is a specimen of health, running marathons, a triathlon, featured in national fitness magazines and even interviewed on the syndicated day time talk show, “The Doctors.”

But she’s not done yet. This year, she began using what she’s learned to kick-start the health and well-being of her fellow faculty members on campus at Prien Lake Elementary School in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Because Bruchhaus isn’t just a teacher there. She is a Wellness Warrior.

The Wellness Warrior program was launched earlier this year by the Calcasieu Parish School System, a partner in the Dare to be Healthy wellness initiative. Dare to be Healthy is supported in part through a $760,000 grant from BCBSLAF’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana. Today, there are 83 Wellness Warriors on the various Calcasieu Parish school campuses, from elementary through high school. We talked to Bruchhaus about her role as a Wellness Warrior, and how it’s helped her motivate herself, her students and her co-workers toward embracing a healthier, happier life.

Q: What is a Wellness Warrior, exactly?

A: The school board decided the best way to get the teachers motivated was to have one person at each campus to implement different things toward an overall goal of wellness. Sometimes things just sound better coming from a co-worker than an administrative office. So, they appointed one Wellness Warrior per campus to motivate co-workers to be active and eat well.

The Doctors TV show featured Paula as the “Picture of Health.”
The Doctors TV show featured Paula as the “Picture of Health.”

Q: How did you end up as the Wellness Warrior for your campus?

A: My prinicpal, Irene Greathouse, asked me to do it. I’d already started a running club for my students, about 10 years ago. And now I was excited to do something to motivate my co-workers, too.

Q: I’m sure your principal was already impressed by the work you’ve been doing with the kids. You’ve raised prize donations from the community for the kids and even participate in 5Ks and half-marathons with them, right?

A: Yes, I went to businesses in the community and asked if they would give me monetary donations so we would be able to buy them prizes. So, every 20 miles they run, they get a prize — a water bottle, backpacks, towels… We announce the winners on the intercom and send it in to the local newspaper. Last year, I had a third grader tell me he wanted to be the first third grader to run a half-marathon, because we’d just had a fourth grader do it. I said okay, and gave him a training schedule. Then his teacher saw him running and joined him. Then his dad started running with us. And so the four of us ended up running it together. He was the athlete of the week on the local news!

Q: So I’m guessing your principal is counting on you to have that same kind of wildfire effect with your fellow teachers. The program started in August. How’s it going?

A: Well, my school has been easy to motivate. Some of the teachers were already doing a Zumba class together once a week. One of our teachers is an instructor. And a secretary here is also an instructor so now she’s holding classes on campus after school every Thursday.

Q: Wow, that’s great! And you also started your own Biggest Loser program, right?

A: Yes, each week, we have a weigh in and everyone brings $2. Whoever loses the largest percentage of body weight by the Friday we get out for the Christmas holiday will get all the money we’ve collected. We announce which teacher has lost the most each week on the intercom, so the kids know we are doing it. Everything we do, we want the kids to know about it and see it. We want to motivate them.

Q: And you are motivating them, right? Because you recently ran in the school system’s “From the Classroom to a 5K” run/walk, which was just for teachers in the parish and their families. And now I understand the kids want their own! How did you get your teachers to prepare for that, since many of them have never run or walked a mile before, let alone 3.1.

A: That’s true. I passed out a survey asking teachers if they might be interested in doing it. And I had one teacher, she was just shaking when she turned that survey in to me. She said, “This scares me so much.” And I just told her, “It’s going to be okay. You can do this!” Her son is even in my running club. So the next thing you know, she came back and said, “Alright, I did it. I bought my walking shoes.” And she did it. She finished!

Q: Great story! How did you train everyone, since you had people on so many different levels of fitness?

A: I gave them all their own training schedule — walker, novice runner, intermediate, advanced. And everyone picked their own level and then kind of paired up that way. And in the end, we had 45 teachers show up! And with their spouses and kids, we had 61 participants. Of all the campuses in our parish, we had the greatest percentage of teachers show up to participate, so we won a healthy lunch cooked up for us at the school!

Q: I guess you are so good at motivating people because you’ve been there yourself. You were over weight and unfit and the subject of mean name calling. How did you snap yourself out of that way of life?

Before / After
Before / After

A: Well, my husband and I were both very large. We were both heavy our whole lives. And I saw this Body for Life book, and saw all these before and after pictures, with these incredible transformations. And I just wanted to see if that was possible. So, we took our own before pictures and got to work. Before you know it, I lost 80 pounds. Then Shape Magazine did a story on me. Looking Good Magazine put me on the cover. And someone from the Doctors TV show called me, they were looking for someone who had totally changed their lives and the lives of others. So, I submitted a video with me and the kids at school. And they picked me for their “Picture of Health” segment. They filled the gym up with students and announced I had been picked for the show in front of everyone. It’s just been so wonderful.

Q: Do you think your kids and co-workers are feeling that kind of high, too? Are they embracing it as much as you have?

A: The difference has been incredible. It’s a visible change. One of our teachers, we had to talk her into participating in the 5K. Then when she finished, she just kept saying, “That was awesome, so awesome!” And the next day, she woke up and did another three miles! That’s the atmosphere around here. They’re all so happy. And people are just doing an amazing job.

Q: And how does it feel to carry your newest label, Wellness Warrior, at your campus? Much better than “Stump,” I’m guessing?

A: It’s so nice to promote healthy and wellness. And most importantly, to me, we are being role models for the kids. To see us exercise and eating right, it can’t help but rub off on them. And that’s wonderful.