25 years ago, riots exploded in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers charged with beating a prostrate taxi driver named Rodney King. The event called attention to issues of race and economic inequities, one element of which was cutbacks in the L.A. school system that had resulted in the elimination of physical education and other programs.
From the ashes of the riot grew an innovative afterschool program called A World Fit for Kids! (WFIT), whose leaders were determined to give inner-city youth opportunities for physical fitness, wellness and self-esteem programming that had been lost to budget cuts. In the 25 years since, the program has touched the lives of more than 460,000 children and family members in the city, encouraging them to make healthy decisions over the course of their lives. Along the way, it has pioneered a research-based training model called Mentors in MotionSM that prepares high school “Coach-Mentors” to work with elementary and middle school children, helping both age groups achieve health and fitness goals and develop strategies for success in all aspects of their lives.
“We believe physical activity is a vital tool for personal growth,” says Normandie Nigh, the program’s CEO. “Traditional programs usually emphasize competitive sports and stand-alone recreational activities. But we take a more comprehensive approach, training our staff and Coach-Mentors to address the whole child by linking healthy bodies with healthy minds. We train them to help students increase their self-awareness, improve their capacity to self-manage, and take greater responsibility for the decisions they make.”
WFIT’s commitment to nutrition and exercise predates the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards developed by the National Afterschool Association by many years. In fact, Nigh served on a California committee that developed the state physical activity standards that helped shape HEPA. At the program’s 14 afterschool sites, students begin their afternoons with an “energy break,” a warm-up activity designed to prepare them for the rest of that day’s session. Coach-Mentors help younger students develop self-awareness and understand the implications of choices they make related to eating, physical activity, and sleep. Students eat a healthy snack, receive homework help, participate in a enrichment activities, and get up to an hour or more of physical activity—which could be in the form of a sport, a game, dance, a fitness circuit, or some other activity. Coach-Mentors work to incorporate physical activity in creative ways that respond in real time to the needs of their mentees, while also modeling healthy behaviors and social skills.
“In our interviews with potential mentors,” Nigh stresses, “we make it very clear: this is about being a positive role model and a mentor. It’s not just about teaching a particular sport, fitness, or a club. It’s about modeling the behaviors that we want the kids to adopt: drinking water, eating healthy food, being a good sport… not coming to work with a bag of French fries and a 24-ounce soda!”
Toward that end, WFIT provides new teen Mentors in Motion with a 38-hour training series designed to promote their personal development and hone their leadership skills. They then practice the skills they learn doing community service as assistant coaches in WFIT elementary programs, after which each student can apply for a six-month internship position as a teen Coach-Mentor and receive an educational stipend.
A 2013 independent evaluation of the program by the Kaiser Group affirms the approach’s value. As the Kaiser evaluators point out, “National research shows that physically active youth achieve better school grades and test scores than those who are not,” citing a “series of findings [that] indicate that children and teens experience academic improvements while participating in WFIT programs.” This includes an association between attendance in the program and improved grade point averages. Among the evaluation’s most striking findings was that 54 percent of WFIT’s middle and high school students engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days a week, compared to 8 percent of teens nationally. Similarly, WFIT students were more likely to drink water than soda, and not just to recognize that fruit is a healthy snack but to report actually eating it!
Nigh attributes much of the program’s achievements to the way it trains Coach-Mentors. Specifically, they are taught to prepare students to succeed and encourage them to assess what is happening, modify if necessary, and recognize what leads to a given success.
“If a student starts with a goal of running 30 minutes a day,” she explains, “their Coach-Mentor will help them create a plan—a warm-up, the run itself, and a cool down. During the run, if the Coach-Mentor notices the student getting tired in the first ten minutes, they would coach their mentee to overcome the challenge by modifying the plan, perhaps by running three 10-minute intervals with water breaks between. Along the way, the Coach-Mentor primes the mentee to reflect on the experience and celebrate the skills they used to overcome such challenges: resilience, optimism and discipline. With this process, kids are able to translate the skills they learned in this setting to their day-to-day life, including their academics.”
In the end, Nigh says, the role of the Coach-Mentors, and for that matter of the entire WFIT team, is to “support the kids and each other in being their best selves!”