When I was in the fourth grade centuries ago, I would watch the other girls twirl around the bars made from pipes and secured to the ground. I don’t know if girls have bars in elementary school today but it was one of the things girls of my generation did at recess.
I watched them twirl because I couldn’t do it. I really wanted to twirl like they did.
At night, I would imagine that I wrapped my coat around the bar, threw one leg over my coat, bent over and twirled. “I can do it,” I said confidently before falling into sleep.
Thoreau’s dictum, here paraphrased, that if one advances confidently in the direction of the life he imagined, he will succeed, didn’t work for me on the bars. Each day when I approached them, I became paralyzed with fear. My body simply couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t run for any distance or ride a bike. So I stood outside and watched those children that could. I was 9 years old and obese.
That long ago in the last century, being an obese child was unusual. If my class was any indication, I would guess that obesity in elementary school aged children was about 3 to 5 percent.
Being obese was a pretty big (all puns intended) deal to me mostly because I was acutely aware of being fat as a failing of some sort and, worse, shameful even within my own family. Then, of course, there was the teasing that ranged from name calling to one incident of rock throwing.
I am an insider to the problem of childhood obesity; I get it because I live with the consequences of it to this day. The good news is I overcame obesity. Still, I never developed confidence in my body. I don’t climb ladders and I lean toward activity that always has my feet on the ground. I have to rigorously manage what I eat and drink because I have cells just waiting to grow into obesity.
Fortunately, I had a personality that disarmed the prejudice that surrounded me and caused my child peers to laugh at my jokes instead at me and adults to get beyond the fat and see a thoughtful mind.
Far too many and too young
Today, I feel enormous sadness when I see far too many big little Berthas and Bens.
It is with this living pain that I want to reach out to every obese school child, especially those in elementary grades. There are far too many. I became determined to put my special insight to work using the skills I’ve developed over the years.
I had ideas but I kept coming back to schools as a place to start. As fate would have it, two years ago I had an opportunity to attend a coffee with Sequim School District Superintendent Kelly Shea. I found him approachable and openly encouraging community involvement.
I scheduled an appointment and came armed with the mission of the Sequim School District: “On behalf of the Sequim Community, the School District shall inspire and achieve excellence in the academic, creative, and physical potential of each student.”
Superintendent Shea listened to my passion and my ideas. All Sequim school children mattered to him and he sent me off to school district nurse Sonja Bittner, who turned out to be a treasure of intelligence, common sense, caring and professional grace.
Our journey began. I learned about the huge responsibility that a single school nurse carries for the health of the children, especially those with existing medical conditions, and all the children that show up ill during the day. She reached out to parents when she saw health issues in a child, some obese children falling in that group.
The first thing we did was search for data to better understand the prevalence of obesity in Sequim schools. Using an anonymous list of weights, heights, age and birth dates of 285 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from the year before, I calculated their child BMIs which placed them on a grid with ranges from underweight to obese. Nearly one-third of that group was either overweight or obese, which matches the national average. Surprisingly higher than national, 23 percent of that group was obese. At least 65 children were living the life I led and were unable to run and play anymore than I was at their age.
Futures not bright
If not helped, those children are destined to be obese adults with chronic diseases and very possibly serious diseases by the time they become adolescents.
One of the wonderful things about children is the resilience of their bodies. It takes time for the consequences of obesity to show in children, although health care providers are seeing more signs of obesity related Type 2 diabetes in children.
Health insurance is no different for children than adults; no illness, no payment and no prevention program. Instead, payment doesn’t kick in until the effects of obesity accumulate until one or more conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, non-alcoholic liver disease and joint problems appear.
One year ago Sonja was joined by Kerry Wyman-Webb, RN, a dedicated, sharp, professional brimming with enthusiasm. A part of her time was dedicated to the development of a school wellness program. We formed a team in which I was appointed volunteer planner. Kerry took on surveying resources for existing or possible programs to which the school could refer children and parents.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula, already providing nutritious snacks and activity programs, has become a more than willing partner to participate in kid-friendly solutions.
Just last month, Superintendent Shea approved our proposal to develop an integrated, age-appropriate Wellness Program through a task force consisting of teachers, parents, at least one student, a nutritionist, a pediatric nurse practitioner and community representatives. The school board supported the proposal as well.
Two years ago when I told one of my friends about my vision of a program, my friend’s response was “fat chance,” and I don’t think my friend even intended the irony. I don’t want the prediction to come true but I have talked with too many who simply believe it can’t be done.
The issues of public policy, parental rights, poverty, school funding and even politics loom large and dark in a quest to save over 20 percent of our youngest children and reverse the statement, “For the first time, the current generation of children is not expected to live as long as their parents will.”
I wonder lately what I would have done if a caring adult had asked me, “Do you want to twirl on the bars?” “Do you want run?”
I would feel shy, but nod yes.
“All right then, let’s see what we can do together.”
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at email@example.com.