By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

Ten-year-old Chris Ross was clearly struggling.

Should he get the basketball? Or the athletic shirt and socks? Or some healthy snack food? The skateboard, at least, was too expensive. So that ruled out that.

“I guess I’ll have to keep going to GRoW Saturdays so I can earn more points,” he said during a shopping spree at a Kenner Target store.

Exactly, Chris… And that’s the master plan behind GRoW’s innovative Healthy Rewards Program. It works like this — every time a kid shows up for GRoW’s Saturday activities day, they earn 5 points (which translates into $5 real dollars, thanks to a $2,000 grant from Target stores). Attend five Saturdays, participating in afternoons of basketball, dance, yoga, bike rides and the like? Earn $25!

Great Resources WhereY’at Program Director Mat Schwarzman came up with the incentive plan as a way to keep kids motivated to show up. Because, as he told us, so far, participating GRoW kids had a tendency to show up for a Saturday session now and then. Sporadically. But getting kids addicted to showing up? To keep coming, keep having fun, even bug their parents to drop them off every Saturday morning? That wasn’t happening so much.

“The goal is to create more of a network of kids that come on a regular basis,” Schwarzman said. “And once we have our network of true believers, other people will see the benefits of what they’re doing and want to become involved, too.”

Schwarzman recruited Target District Team Leader Ali Malik (who sits on the board of the New Orleans Kids Partnership, a GRoW partner organization) to help put the plan in place. And now, Ali is working to recruit other businesses to donate to the program, pushing the idea that the donation is an easy way to promote real change in their community.

But that part didn’t matter so much to the eight kids who hopped a GRoW rented shuttle bus and showed up for Saturday’s shopping spree. They were only focused on the shopping at hand this day. They played hard. Got active. Showed up as told. Even had fun in the process. And now, the day’s shopping spree was their reward, allowing them to earn goodies ranging in value from $20 to $35.

Coach Chris Riggleman, who volunteers to lead GRoW classes,  was there to guide the kids in the right shopping path. Sure, a lot of them tried to get away with buying random items — candy, toys, hats… He kept ’em on the straight and narrow.

“Is that active gear,” he asked Chris, clinging to a package from the toy shelf. The boy put it back. And when he came back with a dress shirt, claiming, “I can work out in this!” Chris just shook his head. “You can work out in a suit, too. That doesn’t make it athletic wear.”

In the end, the little guy ended up with a new basketball, an athletic shirt and a bag of low sodium, low calorie popcorn. And as he hugged  his bag of goodies, he was all smiles, promising to show off his wares to the other kids at next Saturday’s GRoW session.

“And when the kids come back showing off their new stuff,” Coach Chris said, “with their new basketballs and clothes, that is a real eye opener for everyone else. That’s when they all start asking, ‘Hey, how can I get that stuff?’ ”

IMG_2353Other goodies the kids picked up? A set of pink weights for one girl eager to kick off her new fitness program. A 14-year-old boy held tight to his packs of protein drinks, yogurts and workout t-shirt. Malachi McDougle, 10, left with new workout pants and shirt.

“I’ll use these to jog and to play basketball in at GRoW,” McDougle said.

After shopping, the kids met in the Target store breakroom for a healthy bag lunch, then back on the shuttle bus to be dropped off at home. Schwarzman knows there may be criticism in his method. You know, the whole, ‘are we bribing kids to do the right thing’ argument… But Schwarzman doesn’t see it that way. These are kids trying something new. And until they get the message, until GRoW’s healthy living lessons sink in, he has no problem stacking the deck in his favor.

“It’s about supporting kids to do healthy things,” Schwarzman said. “And this is just an extra incentive to stay on that path.”

Christopher Confident, 14, shows off his shopping spree goodies. Says Confident, “It does keep me motivated. But shopping isn’t why I go. GRoW keeps me from sitting in my house all day. I get to be outside, be active. I really like going.”

GRoW is a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported program. For more information on the program and schedule of Saturday classes, go to