Fit Kids Foundation Executive Director Ashley Hunter say her favorite part of the program is exercising with the students. Photo by Gino De Grandis/courtesy Fit Kids Foundation.Posted January 3, 2020
Leveling the Playing Field
Fit Kids Foundation brings fitness programs and skill-building to underserved children
by Sue Dremann
There's a video made for the nonprofit Fit Kids Foundation that warms founder Ashley Hunter's heart. In it, a 7-year-old girl wearing her favorite sequined cat-ears headband is running with a group of children at a playground at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo Alto.
In another shot, Brianna joins other kids in doing frog jumps, jumping jacks, push-ups and squats. When her mother comes to pick her up from the Fit Kids after-school fitness program Brianna proudly demonstrates her jumping jacks.
Brianna's enthusiasm is the kind of response Hunter hoped for when she started Fit Kids in 2011. A Menlo Park resident, Hunter saw that children in east Menlo Park and East Palo Alto schools did not have equal access to strong fitness programs, safe playgrounds or after-school sports teams.
So she founded Fit Kids Foundation to help children ages 4-13 who may otherwise be "couch potatoes" become energetic, confident, outdoors-loving enthusiasts. Through exercise and outdoor games, the program builds kids' fitness, motor skills and social and emotional development.
This year, Fit Kids received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund so that it could achieve its goals.
Despite Brianna's family's hectic schedule — her parents work separate shifts — they make time for Fit Kids. Brianna's mother takes her to the after-school program Mondays through Wednesdays.
"She tells me she loves it when it's Fit Kids day because she gets to exercise," her mother said in Spanish in the April 2019 video.
Brianna said she had to adjust to the program.
"It was hard when I first started because I didn't know what to do," she said.
Her coach helped her to understand how to do the exercises; she likes the frog jumps, push-ups and jumping jacks the best.
"It feels like I'm sweating everywhere," she said.
Hunter, Fit Kids' executive director, said the foundation initially wanted to launch sports programs at underserved schools, but the leaders soon noticed the children lacked the hand-eye coordination, foot-eye coordination, speed, strength and agility that are necessary for participating in sports.
The fitness scores of children in East Palo Alto were dismal, Hunter said. Only 19% of children in the East Palo Alto Fit Kids program were at the 50% percentile for the Presidential Physical Fitness test standard. At Costaño and Willow Oaks (Menlo Park) elementary schools, 4.6% of participants met the Presidential standard for curl-ups; 17.7% met the standard for push-ups and 43.4% met the standard for the shuttle run, while 33.1% reached the standard for the V-sit, a flexibility exercise, Hunter said.
Without physical fitness skills, children won't be able to participate in team sports when they reach middle school and high school, she said.
"We're providing opportunities for structured physical activity through games, relay races and obstacle courses to make it fun," she said.
Fitness tests are showing the results of the program. During three sessions in 2018-19, 80% of participants could do more curl-ups; 64% did more push-ups, 55% gained more flexibility doing V-sits and 54% ran faster in the shuttle runs, according to Fit Kids data.
Being active is also building the kids' confidence, Hunter said.
To ensure the students have a positive experience, the program incorporates training for its coaches from the Positive Coaching Alliance and the Child Mind Institute on how to encourage students in a constructive and healthful way as well as how to recognize kids' mental health issues.
Fit Kids also has a program at Los Robles Elementary School, but there's no coach to run the program right now. Hunter said it's hard to find coaches in this area.
To reach more children, Fit Kids branched out to teach the curriculum to schools and nonprofits, such as the Boys and Girls Club, where staff members there teach the Fit Kids method. About 600 children are in Fit Kids curricula in the Ravenswood City School District during the school day through these programs, Hunter said.
Willow Oaks and Costaño, where there are 142 children in the after-school program, serve as two innovation centers where Fit Kids analyzes development and program components. As happens with new programs, the children have sometimes challenged the program designers' assumptions.
"We took out jump ropes. The kids couldn't use the jump ropes, so they started to swing them around and could hurt each other," Hunter said.
Though locally rooted with 13 sites in East Palo Alto, the program has grown to serve 15,000 children in East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Las Vegas, according to the Fit Kids website. Hunter, who formerly worked in investment banking, said of the expanding program, "We're excited. We have big goals."
The foundation's goal is to start up to 80 programs beginning in January, particularly in Los Angeles. They hope to establish a regional board, and if successful, the foundation will grow and start other chapters around the country, she said.