Try This! conference aims to improve diet, exercise habits

SAM OWENS | Sunday Gazette-Mail photos
Ruthlawn Elementary first grade students Olivia Jamerson, left, and Kenneth Straley, right, use their exercise ball chairs to do a quick activity with their classmates inside their classroom in South Charleston. During class, their teacher Bev Stern makes them take a break to do exercises every twenty minutes.
Bev Stern’s first graders bounce around on their “portable garden seating” as they examine the vegetables they will soon harvest from the garden at Ruthlawn Elementary in South Charleston.
SAM OWENS | Sunday Gazette-Mail photos
Stern got a grant for the garden after attending last year’s Try This! conference. The conference will June 5 and 6 in Buckhannon.
Ruthlawn Elementary first grade student Autumn Lentz holds out a freshly picked beet from the class garden.
SAM OWENS | Sunday Gazette-Mail photos
Ruthlawn Elementary first grade students Olivia Jamerson, left, and Kenneth Straley, right, use their exercise ball chairs to do a quick activity with their classmates inside their classroom in South Charleston. During class, their teacher Bev Stern makes them take a break to do exercises every 20 minutes.

The classroom was quite the sight, with more than a dozen 6-year-olds miming a front stroke, each atop his or her own large and colorful exercise ball.

After 30 seconds, Bev Stern called for them to “switch to the backstroke,” and the kids complied, flipping over and smiling at the ceiling as they swung their arms

Stern, a first-grade teacher at Ruthlawn Elementary School in South Charleston, has her students break for this and other simple exercises every 20 minutes throughout the school day. Most of the moves are her kids’ own invention, and they serve a dual purpose in the classroom: The one- to five-minute diversions help Stern fulfill the requirement in state law that children get 30 minutes of exercise each school day beyond recess, and they help her young and energetic class focus.

“I had a student with special needs who never smiled, but my trainer at Anytime Fitness said ‘you can’t do these exercises and not smile,’” Stern said. “They have such a good time.”

Outside the classroom, the exercise balls transform into “portable garden seating” for the students, who have planted everything from sweet potatoes to radishes and are only days from harvesting. Stern, who has taught for more than 30 years, took over and expanded the gardening project when she started teaching at Ruthlawn several years ago, and began planting vegetables with her classes three years ago.

After attending the first Try This! conference last year, Stern knew she needed to incorporate a simple, fun way for her kids to get exercise. She wrote an application for what she called her “Bouncing in the Garden” grant, and received $1,200 in the form of a Try This! mini-grant.

The Try This! Conference, slated for West Virginia Wesleyan College June 5 and 6, is in its second year. The event has sparked interest from community leaders and partners across the state — last year, more than 350 people made the trip to Buckhannon for the grassroots networking and learning event. This year has seen an even greater response, and 500 people from around the state have signed up to attend the two-day event, which features 40 break-out sessions and dozens of speakers.

“What I liked best about the conference was that it showcased all these ideas out there of things to try, and I brought them back,” Stern said. “There are so many ideas from around the state that I had never seen, and the focus on nutrition and exercise — I had already been growing vegetables, and I added the new exercise component this year. The kids understand what they’re doing. They know it isn’t just a one-time deal where you study nutrition for a week and move on. It’s a nutrition component for the whole year that hopefully becomes a life skill.”

Kate Long, one of the primary proponents for Try This!, said the initiative hinges on collaboration from a variety of local partners invested in improving West Virginia’s poor health statistics.

“West Virginians hear so much bad news about our condition that they’re almost inclined to believe there’s nothing to be done, but they’re very eager to do something,” Long, who wrote a year-long series for the Gazette on obesity and related health issues, said. “When they see other communities that have done something and they think ‘shoot, if they can do that in Williamson, we can do it,’ then that taps into that bad feeling that comes from being atop the worst health lists, and it stirs up hope.”

The primary difference form last year’s conference to this year’s is an increase in networking opportunities, Long said. Organizers have eliminated presentations during lunch and have extended the breaks between sessions to allow those in attendance more time to socialize, she said, and they’ve built in time on the Thursday before the conference for networking.

For Long, the conference is about changing long term habits for a healthier West Virginia.

It’s something Stern has already seen in her own students — when asked what their favorite snack is, the group shouts “kale” in unison. One of her former students, now in fifth grade, just received her junior master gardener level one certification, a hopeful sign in Stern’s push to make healthy eating and exercise the norm for her students. The mini-grants are part of the Try This! model, small grants worth up to $3,000 and meant as starting points for more funding. Stern’s efforts have also received support from KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, the Capitol Conservation District and the South Charleston Chamber of Commerce.

“Our grants are small, but in some ways we think that’s good, because we help people learn to parlay a little money into a larger amount, and how to use that as a platform to approach their county commission or a local business and say ‘look what we got. Can you match this?’ Some of them have turned a $3,000 grant into $15,000,” Long said.

Try This! also has a website, www.trythiswv.com, where users can find more than 100 how-tos on healthy cooking, starting exercise programs and generating funding for community projects.

The Try This conference is a project of the WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, the WV Association of Counties, the WV Office of Child Nutrition, Change The Future WV, WV Food and Farm Coalition, WVU Extension, West Virginia Farmers Market Association, UniCare, West Virginia Primary Care Association, KEYS 4 HealthyKids, WV on the Move, WV Bureau for Public Health, WV Community Development Hub, Main Street WV, American Friends Service Committee, West Virginia Wesleyan, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, West Virginia School-Based Health Assembly, Step by Step and the WV Council of Churches.

For more information on this year’s conference, including descriptions of sessions and speakers, visit www.trythiswv.com/conference.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.

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