By Crystal Carr
For the first time in years, Homewood High School’s choir director Scott Thorne can feel a rush of waves under his feet as he water skis just off the sandy beaches of Alabama.
He can shop wherever he pleases. He can play sports like he’s never played them before.
Even tying his shoes is different after he lost 175 pounds through the Wellness Program at Homewood High School.
Thorne began the Wellness Program, coordinated by Nivada Spurlock, in January. The program is part of Homewood High’s continuous effort to address the issue of childhood obesity on campus.
Starting this school year, Spurlock, who’s also the school’s director of physical education, plans to include a parenting outreach program that will enable parents to make healthier food choices at home.
The program made radical changes at HHS last year to tackle childhood obesity.
“We removed all of the snack machines,” Spurlock said. “We took out all of the fried foods. We added in a salad bar.”
Initially, the students didn’t welcome the changes.
“It was tough,” Spurlock said. “But now, the students are starting to try new things.”
Among those new things are bicycle-spinning classes during or after school. “The kids get into it because of the music,” Spurlock said. “It is very engaging. They get a really hard workout in class.”
The Wellness Program has also helped teachers become more physically active through running, walking and biking. Melonie McBrayer started the Run/Walk/Ride program, which uses the greenway trail near the school for cardio exercises. The program encourages the faculty of Homewood High to get moving regardless of their individual fitness levels.
McBrayer has been involved in long distance running since she was in high school. She’s a part of a local running support group and participated in the Boston Marathon in 2005.
According McBrayer, the camaraderie and morale the faculty felt toward each other had the biggest impact on achieving their fitness goals.
“It is easier to get out there and walk when you know that someone else will be waiting for you,” McBrayer said.
At the end of the year, the faculty participated in a community race organized by the Trak Shak. Parents, students and members of the community showed up in droves to support the school’s weight loss initiative.
“You don’t need funding to create a different attitude about fitness,” Spurlock said. “You need teachers and parents who are willing to make this important for their students.”
McBrayer says teachers play an essential role in encouraging students to be healthy.
“A healthier teacher is a better teacher,” McBrayer said. “It’s good to show kids that we are trying to live a healthier lifestyle so that they can be encouraged to do the same.”
In turn, the students show their support for the teachers during the school’s Bike for Bagwell fundraising program.
Every year, the faculty and students move exercise bikes into the hallways to raise money in honor of Lynn Bagwell, a former employee who fought cancer.
“As long as there is money, we will continue to spin,” Spurlock said.
In the first year, the school raised $3,000 for the American Cancer Society in honor of Lynn Bagwell. The second year brought in $5,000 in donations from students and faculty.
“Each kid gave about five bucks apiece,” Spurlock said.
The students also participated in a video challenge chronicling their efforts to combat childhood obesity on campus. The video, produced by students Andy Bass and Marlee Caldwell, won $5,000. It was presented in front of former President Bill Clinton, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at an Alliance conference in New York.
In the video, Thorne is shown tearing apart a photo of his former self to reveal his astonishing weight loss — a change many of the students didn’t notice until the end of the year.
“The energy I have now makes me a better teacher and a happier person,” Thorne said.
Losing weight took perseverance, said Thorne. It took waking up every day to participate in cycling sessions at school. He had to walk. He had to run.
But in the end, McBrayer said, the results are worth the effort.
“It is always difficult to start anything new,” she said. “You just have to make that first jump.
“It doesn’t matter if you are walking or running, we are all out there taking the same steps toward a healthier lifestyle.”