by Tina Luther with Natalie GutierrezFor the Castillo family of Eagle Pass, being in the rat race was a normal way of life. But as the years passed, busy schedules that didnít seem to leave room for exercise or eating right were leading the Castillos down a dangerous and unhealthy path. Soon, their routine began to catch up with them, and the family, including the children, first-grader Juan Carlos and prekindergartener Reyes Berenice, began to fight an uphill battle with the bulge.
The Castillo children arenít alone. Body Mass Index (BMI) profiles, using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards, show that in Eagle Pass 54 percent of elementary students have BMIs above the 85th percentile, which puts them at risk for becoming overweight. Within that group, 37 percent are overweight with BMIs higher than the 95th percentile. According to the article, "Prevalence of overweight and obesity among U.S. children, adolescents, and adults, 1999-2002," published in the June 16, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, these numbers are twice the national average. Eagle Pass Independent School District nurses report that overweight children typically gain between 20 and 30 pounds during the summer break. They say many of these children stay at home indoors and remain sedentary during the summer months.
While picking up her children at Sam Houston Elementary School in Eagle Pass one afternoon, Sandra Castillo, Juan Carlosí and Bereniceís mom, noticed a flier for Camp Get FIT (families in training). The program, initiated by Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM), is a free four-week, weight-loss-day camp offered to overweight children in Eagle Pass. MHM had successfully organized and operated a family wellness program in Eagle Pass called Get FIT Eagle Pass during the 2005-2006 academic year.
This summer, the Health Science Center joined forces with MHM and Eagle Pass Independent School District to help run Camp Get FIT. Peggy Visio, a consulting dietician and adjunct assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences at the Health Science Center, is the Camp Get FIT director along with Ambar Gonzalez, Sam Houston Elementary School counselor.
Sandra Castillo immediately registered her children, and Juan Carlos and Berenice joined 125 other campers who were transported to and from camp every day this summer. At camp, Juan Carlos and Berenice participated in activities that included morning yoga, daily swimming, nutrition and cooking lessons, Olympic-style games, and arts and crafts projects. Their parents also attended evening classes during "Parentsí Night" that taught nutrition and positive parenting.
Visio said physician assistant (PA) studies students from the Health Science Center are a major part of the programís success. "They are wonderful role models for the children, not only from a fitness perspective but also as mentors who encourage children to do well in school," Visio said. Students fulfill community service electives through their work as camp counselors, and earn four credit hours toward their degrees.
Although most children are hesitant upon their arrival at camp, they quickly feel welcome and pick up positive and healthy lifestyle habits. Linda Nguyen, PA studies student and a Camp Get FIT counselor, attests to the impact of the nutrition training. Nguyen recalled a story that a camp participantís mother shared with her about a recent trip to the grocery store.
"The son asked the mother to buy broccoli and cauliflower, and she couldnít believe it!" Nguyen said. "The mother said her sonís behavior changed so much since he attended camp that it is affecting them positively as a family." Nguyen says this testament proves children can make healthy choices at home when empowered with information and encouragement from their teachers and peers.
The camp has had a constructive impact on the childrenís sense of self-image as well. PA assistant studies student Maggie Salinas described her experience with one of the campers.
"On the second day of camp, one child was reluctant to take his shirt off at the pool because he said other children usually made fun of his weight," Salinas said. "But I taught him how to block negative comments and assured him that I would support him. By the end of the week, the little camper seemed thrilled about swimming time. I believe Get FIT boosted his self-esteem and gave him a sense of security and motivation," Salinas said.
Juan Carlos and Berenice are starting a new school year, and they and their parents plan to grow healthier together. The Castillo family now exercises together, drinks more water, plays outside and has modified their diets.
At the campís conclusion, Juan Carlos was declared the program winner for losing the most weight and learning healthy habits with his family. He proudly sports his prize, a new bike, awarded by Camp Get FIT, the Eagle Pass Independent School District and MHM.
Although Camp Get FIT awards prizes at the conclusion of the camp, Visio says the lifelong rewards are the resources and lessons learned that campers and their families take home and incorporate into their daily lifestyles. The program is expected to expand to an after-school program, and the summer camp also is expected to grow. For more information about Get FIT, call Peggy Visio, Get FIT facilitator, at (210) 844-7491, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Mireya Gonzales for Spanish translation and interview assistance.
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