John Soellner, Wesley Chapel Elementary School's plant manager, grabbed the opportunity to work out in the school's staff fitness center while off duty and lost 50 pounds. Karen Howell, who handles the school's data entry, zips down to the fitness center on her break time and walks on the treadmill. Other staff members arrive early or stay late for exercise and stress relief. The center's two treadmills, elliptical exerciser, stationary bike, weight machines, dumbbells, punching bag, speed bag and stereo system allow individuals their favorite workout and their own music selection.
Nearby another portable is set up as the Wildcat Wellness Center with 24 stations for students to work out with cardio, flexibility, yoga, strength bands, punching bags, rowing, medicine balls, non-electric steppers and treadmills. Teachers guide the students as part of the physical education requirements. It's high-energy fun and students are building a workout that could make a lifelong difference in health quality.
Both centers reflect the school's focus on wellness, earning it the bronze award twice — the only school in Pasco to duplicate the award, though other schools have claimed the award once — from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
The Alliance's Healthy Schools Program provides expert advice and resources at no cost to more than 15,000 schools nationwide to help reverse childhood obesity. Back in 2010, the Alliance was looking for a Wesley Chapel pilot school.
"I saw the opportunity to make a difference in the overall health and well-being of the staff and students," says Chris Gorman, the school's Wellness Committee chairman and physical education specialist who credits the committee's hard work in collecting documentation that led to the awards.
Several portable classrooms were vacant at Wesley Chapel Elementary. One would work for a staff center, another for a student center. Bridgewater Homeowners Association donated $1,000. Gorman sought equipment. He searched yard sales, found some on Craigslist and other items were donated. He stretched dollars, even finding the stereo system for $8 at a thrift shop. Sometimes Gorman reached for his own wallet, not allowing a good deal to pass.
On weekends or after school hours, Gorman picked up equipment and set it up in the centers.
His dedication guided him to create sensible wellness exercises for the students.
"This is not just recess," he explained, adding that what students learn about fitness now can guide them later in life.
Much planning went into the centers including, for the adults, signed liability releases. Well-maintained equipment and safety are paramount for success.
The student wellness program expanded to Friday outdoor clubs, including flag football, baseball and soccer and archery is being added. About 250 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders participate while younger children use the fitness lab.
Darlene Wipper, cafeteria manager, addressed the Alliance's stringent guidelines for promoting healthy eating.
"Even our snacks meet the guidelines," said Wipper, offering lemon- and strawberry-flavored raisins as examples of snacks students enjoy.
Fresh local produce is served, and Wipper encourages students to try new foods. If a student shies from peas, for example, Wipper offers a sample.
"They often taste something they've never had and find out they really like it," Wipper said, and, thinking school lunch for some children may be their main meal of the day, she's compelled to make it a good one.
Wesley Chapel Elementary principal John Abernathy is a strong supporter of the fitness activities.
"I believe the focus we've put on incorporating physical fitness into the academic program has two strong points: Kids are more focused with physical benefits and we're hitting a much-needed and hidden curriculum. Everybody seems to talk about it but few actually do anything.
"We're helping students make healthy lifestyle choices and to make those a part of every day's activities."