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Holiday Fund: Making fitness fun

YMCA program introduces kids to healthy lifestyles

Wednesdays after school at the Palo Alto Family YMCA, fifth-graders from Fairmeadow and Palo Verde elementary schools come together for Activate Youth, a program aimed at introducing kids to healthy habits.

On an afternoon in early December staff member Larry Moore managed an enthusiastic crowd of around 60 as he used the Thanksgiving holiday to check students' knowledge of nutrition and exercise.

"So, who went where for Thanksgiving? And what active things did you do?" he surveyed the room.

Answers ranged from "Grandma's house" to New York City, Hawaii and "my bedroom, my bathroom, the living room."

Asked about the benefits of being active, students shouted out common answers -- strength, weight maintenance, happiness -- to which Moore added that exercise decreases the risks for certain health conditions and helps people maintain an active lifestyle as they age.

Moore kept the healthy-habits lesson light and accessible, joking when one participant said that exercise helps him sweat: "If you go out and run after all that turkey and gravy, you'll sweat it right out -- well, not actual turkey and gravy coming out of your pores!"

Activate Youth -- launched in 2009 and the recipient of a $5,000 Weekly Holiday Fund grant this past year -- is a two-pronged program promoting healthy lifestyles, including lessons on nutrition and exercise and access to the YMCA facilities. It's free to all fifth-graders at the participating schools, including non-Y members, and includes a healthy snack. The goals of the program include helping students to make healthy choices and empowering them with the 41 assets endorsed by Palo Alto Unified School District, Danny Koba, youth sports and outreach fitness director, explained.

"The fifth-grade is a great age for this program to serve because the students are about to start making their own choices."

Students such as Nicole Verhulp appreciated the respect she said the YMCA shows them.

"They treat us like we're old enough to choose," she said.

The supervised freedom given to Activate Youth participants is a learning opportunity for children and adult members.

"It teaches adults how to deal with large groups of kids and teaches the kids how to behave and exercise in a respectful way," Koba said.

Kids can swim, rock-climb, play badminton or go to the gym, where staff member Scott Fukuhara supervises the many games and relays that keep 30 students active, including variations on dodgeball.

Fukuhara recently wandered in and out of speed ball and power-line, in which frozen students are freed by human chain formed by their teammates, shouting encouragement and getting in on the fun, too.

"What we do in the gym is give all of the kids a chance to stay active. They're excited to be making healthy choices," Fukuhara said.

Ben Vogel of Palo Verde said Activate Youth is fun as well as educational.

"I learned that you have to exercise to burn calories. Also, we get to exercise with people that we're going to school with next year."

Moore, belaying kids who were racing to the top of the rock-climbing wall, said the program encouraged the students to interact more.

"Last year, every game in the gym was Fairmeadow versus Palo Verde. They're getting comfortable interacting and finding common ground," he said.

The YMCA would like to add another school's fifth-graders to the program and is considering renting fields in nearby parks so that YMCA staff can accompany students outside the current facilities.

Current Activate Youth participants said they are excited to have the program.

"The staff are nice and fair. They show us that you're able to get healthier and happier, at the same time," Audrey Jakubowsi said.

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