By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

It was a sweltering day outside Medard H. Nelson Charter School in New Orleans on Saturday. Summer in these parts usually means heat and humidity, of course. But that didn’t bother the kids who turned out for Saturday’s GRoW (Great Resources Olympics WhereY’at) Olympics.

It was the grand finale to a summer of fun Saturday programs, including weekly games, dance lessons, cooking classes, even a build-a-bike program (which allowed kids to work on restoring old bikes until they looked brand-new — and on Saturday, seven of those “new” bikes finally went home with the kids who fixed them up).

The day consisted of water balloon tosses, Hula Hoop challenges, an Insanity Fitness test and Dodgeball, followed by a healthy lunch and prize give-aways (gift cards to Subway, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Smoothie King).

“This is a recognition and a thank you to all the kids who attended GRoW this year,” said Mat Schwarzman, GRoW’s project director. “We’re hoping to send kids off for the summer with a fun memory so they’ll want to come back when we start again in August.”

GRoW is, of course, one of our own Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported programs. And it’s been great to watch them flourish in the past year. After first struggling to find a home base to host the Saturday classes, then fine-tuning classes around activities kids would most enjoy, it’s now a matter of building on what they’ve learned.

“We’ve established our infrastructure,” Schwarzman said. “Now it’s all about dosage — about more kids coming to more Saturdays more often.”

To do that, GRoW staffers have an impressive laundry list of ideas, including teaming up with the YMCA or Boy Scouts and Big Buddy programs.

“We actually had one mentee suggest to her (Big Buddy) mentor that they come here on Saturdays,” Schwarzman said. “So that’s how that idea got started. It’s a perfect thing for kids and mentors to do together.”

There are even new programs for parents, like a Zumba class for moms held inside the cafeteria while kids got their sweat on outside.

GRoW’s goal is to act as a community service hub for kids who live in the same neighborhood, but likely attend different charter schools, and, therefore, may not know each other. In the simplest terms, it’s about building friendships with your neighbors, in a fun, healthy environment.

“We are re-knitting community ties in the context of school choice,” Schwarzman said. “And I think we are now beginning to meet that goal. We are having a community impact.”

Over two dozen kids showed up for Saturday’s Olympics finale. That’s about average, in numbers, we’re told. But word of mouth and social media will continue to push those numbers up now, GRoW leaders say. And then there are new

community business partnerships beginning to take place, adding everything from volunteer power to prize incentives for the kids. Target, which has three stores near the Medard Charter School area (where the Saturday programs are based), has been one of those business leaders, sending staffers to act as volunteers and coaches.

“We’ve partnered with GRoW to help paint and landscape the school, to support the kid activities, whatever is needed,” said James Matthew, 27, a Target employee and volunteer leader/organizer for his store in Harvey. “We’re having a lot of fun with these kids and love helping them see it’s all about staying healthy and active. You won’t see anyone sitting around playing video games here.”

And that’s just fine with Victoria Pineda, 10, who was busy doubling up on a pair of Hula Hoops (and also happened to be one of the lucky kids taking home a bike that day, thanks to her own weekly handy work repairing a broken-down BMX).

“If I wasn’t here on Saturdays, I’d probably just be home helping my mom clean the house,” she said bluntly. “This is definitely a lot more fun.”

A GRoW Teen program is also ongoing at the St. Bernard NORD Center (1500 Lafreniere St) through the end of August. Click here for a schedule of activities and more details on this free program!