When Desean first visited Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, the 11-year-old was facing an uphill battle — prescribed two blood pressure medications and considered morbidly obese, Desean needed to change his eating habits and find more ways to exercise.
Progress was slow for Desean until his family moved from Charleston’s West Side to South Charleston. That was when Desean’s weight finally started improving. It was then that Jeffrey realized that environment had a bigger impact on children’s health than she had realized; Desean’s mother was afraid to let him play outside before, but in South Charleston, he could ride his bike in a nearby graveyard and visit parks. His diet also improved with increased access to healthy foods, and today, Desean is a healthy adult who works as a medical assistant.
“I realized we had to work outside the school bells and really target where kids live, work and play,” Jeffrey said. “A lot of the situations I was seeing were similar to Desean’s. I was asking kids and families to do things they just weren’t able to do. I had a shift in my mindset — instead of blaming them for not having that willpower, or the parents not doing the right thing, or the kids not making the right choice, why not make it easier for them to make the right choice?”
Desean and other kids like him are what drove Jeffrey and Judy Crabtree, executive director of the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement, to apply for and receive a four-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 2009, the pair launched KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, a nonprofit focused on reducing childhood obesity rates in West Virginia. Jeffrey remains the director of KEYS, while Crabtree still works collaboratively with the group as a member of its steering committee.
“My eyes were opened during the application process. Working with Dr. Jeffrey and the studies she had done ... showing that the indication of weight problems starts at age 3 — as a mother, I was astounded,” Crabtree said. “It just seemed like it wasn’t a problem when my son was a toddler, 34 years ago. It wasn’t something we thought about, and when I really learned how prevalent it was was when I said ‘I agree. We need to start as young as possible.’”
Earlier this year, KEYS received a $310,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the largest private funder in West Virginia. The grant will allow KEYS to take its KEYS 2 HealthyStart initiative, which has been implemented in day care centers across Kanawha and Putnam counties, statewide over the next three years in roughly 90 early childhood learning centers. The program, like others KEYS promotes, encourages healthier eating, greater exercise opportunities and more mindfulness for children.
For Jeffrey, the focus on child care centers is important — the centers are often not as consistently regulated as schools, and the children, who range in age from infants to preschoolers, are still forming habits that could last the rest of their lives.
“We just take it community by community, connecting them with their local resources,” said Jessica Dianellos, coordinator of KEYS 2 HealthyStart. “Even different areas of Kanawha County have different needs — the West Side is different from the East End, so it just depends on who they can reach out to in their community. We start with where they are.”
Approximately one in three children between 2 and 19 years of age is overweight or obese, and roughly 27 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight or obese, according to Jeffrey. Weight problems in early childhood also strongly correlate to similar issues later in life — for children between 2 and 5, those with a normal body mass index have a roughly 10 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Comparatively, 2- to 5-year-olds with a BMI in the top-fifth percentile have a 90 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese as adults — and suffering related health issues, Jeffrey said.
KEYS is a small organization, and its partnerships with other organizations in the state allow it to reach farther than it ever could on its own, according to Laura Dice, coordinator of KEYS 4 Healthy Kids. The group is heavily involved in Try This!, a statewide initiative that encourages projects and collaborations to create healthier communities, and partners with larger agencies like West Virginia University Extension, which has offices in all of the state’s 55 counties.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to do too much at one time, and it really takes that one-on-one technical assistance and really getting to know a community and what its needs are, so that we are able to go through those steps,” Jeffrey said. “We want to pounce on every opportunity that comes up, and if it’s a good opportunity that we know we can easily incorporate, we want to seize that opportunity, but we are a few, which is why we count on our collaborative.”