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In 2010, the predominantly Latino city of Corpus Christi, Texas, was labeled the “fattest city in the nation” by Men’s Health magazine. A group of local middle school students were not happy about this designation and wanted to do something about it. After speaking to friends and teachers, the students reached out to influential community members to develop interest and support for a health program for elementary students called “Mission FitPossible.” Three years later, the students were high school students and they would wake up an hour early to bring Mission FitPossible to nearby elementary students.
Next Generation to Inherit Fattest City in Texas
Corpus Christi, Texas (59.7% Latino), was labeled the “fattest city in the nation” in 2010.
Sarita Damaraju and Doug Hagemeister, who were seventh graders at Baker Middle School at the time and now are juniors at W. B. Ray High School, were shocked.
“I think we had gotten used to seeing obesity,” Hagemeister said. “Once we realized how serious of a problem it really was, we began to see it everywhere.”
Damaraju slowly realized she had been witnessing declining health habits in her peers for many years.
“We knew obesity was an issue, but that title was a wakeup call,” Damaraju said. “I guess I noticed it before. For example, kids at school would always try to get out of gym class, and, although the school cafeteria had strict nutrition standards, many students ate poor diets at home and brought unhealthy food to school. But, from a middle schoolers perspective, I didn’t know if was a serious issue.”
Damaraju and Hagemeister learned more about obesity and its causes so that they could come up with a plan to help their fellow students and their community.
“We knew that diet and physical activity were important, but we didn’t know the specifics of just how bad some food was, like how much sugar is in some foods,” Damaraju said. “And we didn’t know how much and which kind of exercises to do.”
In doing their research, Damaraju and Hagemeister learned that obese children are more likely to face additional health problems, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, gall stones, and depression. Studies show that there is more than a 75% chance that children aged 3−10 will be overweight if both parents are obese, and that obesity will continue into adulthood.
“You start to develop bad habits at a young age and they stick with you,” Hagemeister said. “And, as adults, it’s a lot harder to shake off because you’ve had these habits for so long.”
They also learned what the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are. Physical activity and a healthy diet are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as well as improved mood and academic performance.
“The ones who make it a habit to be healthy when they are young are the ones who stay healthy as they get older,” Damaraju said. “It would be great if all kids grew up to be healthy adults.”
Kids Want to Help Younger Kids
Damaraju, Hagemeister, and their friends put a lot of thought into how middle schoolers could make an impact on childhood obesity in Corpus Christi, Texas. They were kids and they wanted to help younger kids.
“Before the generation was going to grow up and inherit this title as the fattest city in America, maybe we could do something about that,” Damaraju said. “We wanted to do something in our community that we could actually have an impact on, but we were kids, so we didn’t think we could really do that much.”
Damaraju and Hagemeister started small, setting up a booth at a local health fair and making posters about healthy eating.
The students recognized that the general public did not seem to know simple information about health or basic information about vegetables.
“It seemed strange that people wouldn’t know very much, but we found out that a lot of people did not know how to cook a healthy meal,” Damaraju said. “From that experience we figured out that awareness was a really big issue.”
They wanted to educate the public—specifically children—on the risks of obesity and the benefits of physical activity and a healthy diet.
In addition to talking to friends and members of the community, they began talking to teachers and coaches in the school. They also started reaching out to school board members, businesses, organizations, and politicians. They made phone calls, sent emails, and visited local businesses and meetings.
“We had never really done anything like this before,” Hagemeister said. “It was hard at the beginning trying to figure out who to contact and what we should say to them, and how to come across as a legitimate group of students who are really trying to do something, versus students who would just work on it for a couple months and then give up. We had to learn how to organize information and how to present to adults who were professionals.”
Rather than developing a program for adults to pass down to children, they wanted to develop a fun and informative program to specifically reach kids and teach them how to start healthy habits early in life in order support healthy habits later in life and prevent obesity.
They branded themselves as Mission FitPossible.
They envisioned Mission FitPossible as using fun approaches to teach elementary students about healthy habits that are relevant to them.
“We should teach things that apply to the younger generation versus how to cook a healthy meal, because obviously they aren’t going to be cooking, their parents are,” Damaraju said. “So we wanted to share information that was more applicable and easy to understand for the younger generation.”
They recalled the games and activities that they enjoyed in elementary and tried to build on those. They were also inspired by Katy Perry’s music videos and the Indiana Jones movies.
“The unique challenge was to make something to present to kids. We wanted to make it informative, but we had to keep it light and fun and accessible,” Hagemeister said.
The Mayor, the Mayor’s Fitness Council, Corpus Christi Independent School District (CCISD) superintendent, and school principals and teachers showed interest in Mission FitPossible.
Peer-Led Health Education Lessons
Mission FitPossible developed age-appropriate and peer-led health education lesson plans and challenges that focused on healthy eating and active living. These included nutrition education videos, “Fitness Jeopardy,” jump rope contests, fitness challenges, and other games to engage elementary students for 10 weeks.
Mission FitPossible made the conscious decision to avoid lectures because they didn’t want to “overload” kids with information. They wanted to present this vital information to their audiences, their fellow students, in a fun and entertaining way.
“We developed simple games that kids could play so they could be doing something they enjoy while they learn from someone close in age, which would encourage them to want to be more fit,” Damaraju said.
Through the newly formed Mayor’s Fitness Council, Joe Adame, the Mayor of Corpus Christi, provided Mission FitPossible a $500 grant in late 2010.
Mission FitPossible used the grant money in spring 2011 to start its first program at Robert Wilson Elementary School (where most Mission FitPossible leaders had graduated from) with a 10-week, peer-led health challenge to see which classes could be the most fit. They bought prizes and incentives for the contest winners that would promote healthy activity, like jump ropes, soccer balls, and pedometers.
“We chose that elementary school because we knew the principle and the PE teachers and we wanted to have something that was familiar because we were doing so much new stuff,” Hagemeister said.
After the first semester of Mission FitPossible at Wilson Elementary School, the team began talking to leaders of the CCISD to find other schools that could also use the Mission FitPossible program in spring 2011.
“[We] got the hang of it and now that we have laid out the foundation,” Hagemeister said. “We started branching out and splitting and recruiting new members to have more groups or middle schoolers to go into more elementary schools.”
Today, Mission FitPossible provides its 10-week health challenge in 14 CCISD elementary schools.
Their games and activities have evolved and they added an annual 5K run/walk.
After noticing a lack of PE equipment and finding schools only had a $100 budget for such items, Mission FitPossible leaders wanted to help get more equipment for schools to use throughout the year.
“So we decided to start the 5Ks to raise money to donate to the schools to get new PE equipment and to repair old stuff,” Damaraju said.
5K Attendance Rewards
To raise funds for PE equipment (and help kids get active), Mission FitPossible planned a charity 5K. The event included an additional incentive as Mission FitPossible turned it into a competition between schools, and advertised that the proceeds would be donated to the schools with the highest student participation.
“We realized that another issue with kids’ physical activity is that PE programs don’t have much equipment,” Damaraju said. “So, we decided to start the 5K’s to raise money to donate to the schools to get new PE equipment and to repair old stuff.”
The Mission FitPossible kids began to reach out to people in the community, including local businesses and coordinated with the local parks and recreation department to book the date and route, and worked with police to block off the street.
“It was hard at the beginning,” Hagemeister said. “It is different to organize a run than to organize the competitions for kids in schools. We have to contact other people and schedule more with other people.”
Although they require more organization, the 5K events are able to reach more community members.
The 5K runs serve three major purposes:
• get the families of elementary school children involved
• get community businesses and organizations involved as sponsors
• reward school PE programs with participation-based donations
Damaraju said: “The parents like the idea of the run where they can do it with their kids versus just the kids going out and doing it separately, but they are doing it together.”
Mission FitPossible increases health equity because it’s free for students and doesn’t require families to schedule additional activities or arrange for transportation, which can be difficult for low-income families with multiple children.
The 5K events are reasonably priced for Corpus Christi residents and are free for students.
In the first two years, almost 1,500 people participated in the 5K events, contributing $50,000. Almost all of the money that they raise from the runs is donated to the schools for the PE programs. In the first two years, Mission FitPossible donated $37,000 to the schools for gym equipment in amounts ranging from $200 to $1,500.
Determining how to distribute the donations has a little each year to encourage school participation and to ensure equitable distribution.
“We decided to make an incentive to get more kids,” Hagemeister said. “At first, we decided on a number and whichever schools brought that many kids would be entered into the raffle. Then we made it a tier. It has changed a little from year to year as we perfect it.”
Training the Next Generation
The Mission FitPossible team wants to reach more elementary schools and start providing peer-led health education lessons and challenges in middle schools.
“We had a much greater impact on students who were younger, because they were more inclined to listen to people our age,” Damaraju said. “They feel like we are a lot more relatable. They can talk to us and treat us like kids instead of an adult that is trying to tell them what to do.”
The Mission FitPossible teams knows that they will graduate high school soon and probably leave Corpus Christi for college and they want to ensure that the program they leave behind will be passed down for years to come.
They started branching out by having one or two members from the core group recruit five or six students that were just a little bit younger. This allowed them to reach more schools, and this gave the younger students more practice and preparation to continue recruiting and training younger students after the Mission FitPossible founders graduate.
“Some of us already graduated and a lot of us are seniors,” Hagemeister said. “We are trying to recruit younger members who can carry on the program and bring it to more schools so that we can address as many students as possible.”
Retention of Mission FitPossible members is high. Many of the students they recruit love it and are eager to return the following year and train new recruits. Eventually, the elementary students that participated in the program will become middle school students and will be able to teach the program they once participated in.
“We will go to schools to do the contest, and then, a year later, do the run, and then a year later when we are back in the school the kids are excited to see us and ask us to come back. They are excited to tell us about the healthy things they eat and the healthy things they do,” Damaraju said.
“Seeing kids actually get excited that we are there and doing a game and eating fruits and vegetables, they get so into it,” Hagemeister said. “It is validating to see kids get passionate about fruits and vegetables, when that is something that kids aren’t normally excited about.”
Mission FitPossible has their 4th 5K planned for November 7, 2015.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.