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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 8, 2006

Learning lessons in well-being

Adages endure for a reason: They embody common sense.

One such long-held truism is: You can’t legislate taste.

So what is the point of a newly proposed wellness policy for the Guilderland schools"

Is discouraging fund-raisers that sell candy bars or bake sales that sell brownies going to change the way Guilderland eats" Probably not.

Is selling only healthy snacks in the elementary schools and offering them for sale as a choice in the middle and high schools going to stop kids from bringing in their own Twinkies to eat" Again, probably not.

You can’t legislate taste, but you can form habits of mind and create an atmosphere for wellness. And that is precisely what the proposed new Guilderland policy does. It covers everything from how kids exercise to how they eat during school hours.

Something had to be done, and schools are a good place to start. Federal legislation is requiring such policies in school districts across the country.

We’ve all seen the statistics on our nation’s obesity epidemic. During the decade from 1991 to 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System recorded a 61-percent increase in obesity.

It is estimated that now over 108 million American adults weigh more than is healthy. And obesity in children is rising, too, as they become overweight at earlier ages. Among school-age children — between six and nineteen — 14 percent are considered overweight or obese, according to National Center for Health statistics.

Early obesity increases the risk of adult obesity and increases risk factors for cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance, leading to a dramatic increase in Type 2 diabetes, according the American Diabetes Association. Type 2 used to be called "adult onset diabetes" but not any more, since so many children are now afflicted.

The Guilderland committee that developed the new wellness policy noted a 17-percent increase in body mass index from first grade to sixth grade, putting those students in the unhealthy range.

Linda Mossop, director of food services for the district, described the new policy as a "starting point" when she presented it to the school board this week.

"This is just a skeleton," agreed board member Barbara Fraterrigo, who served on the committee that developed the policy. "There’s a lot more meat that, over time, could be added."

Guilderland has been fleshing out that skeleton for quite a while. Two years ago, we wrote about the dynamic duo of Colleen Mickle and Deb Wein — physical-education teachers who formed a district-wide Hooked on Health Committee with the mission of promoting healthy behaviors and lifestyles for students and the greater school community, recognizing the critical link between students’ health and their ability to learn.

"It’s not a philosophical committee," Wein said. "We’re doers."

The committee members have produced brochures with long lists of both summer and winter activities; they have sponsored family events focusing on fun and activity; they have raised consciousness on health issues by publicizing facts about healthy living and eating; and they have worked on making school-lunch choices healthier — snacks like Twix and Slim Jims have been cut, and foods like salads and Brussels sprouts have been added.

We applaud the Guilderland School District for making this move. Doubts were raised earlier during school-board discussions about potential loss of revenue if junk-food sales were cut. We believed then as we do now that schools should set an example and not profit from foods or drinks that, in the long run, can be harmful to their students.

Happily, Mossop told the board this week that the changes in menu have not had dire financial consequences for the lunch program.

When the elementary schools first changed to 100 percent healthy snacks, Mossop said, "Initially, it slowed down sales, but it picked up again once they got used to low fat and whole wheat."

She also said there hadn’t been any loss of revenues at the high school, where students still have a choice of buying food that doesn’t meet the Choose Sensibly guidelines.

Schools across the district have promoted wellness in a variety of creative ways — from families dancing together to kids measuring their steps with pedometers as they take a virtual walk across New York State. A marathon started a few years ago at the middle school involved kids running a mile every day for 25 days; this year, parents participated, too.

We covered an elementary-school assembly at Lynnwood in the fall that taught about nutrition and exercise in a quiz-show format, setting the theme for the school year. Kids were cheering for favorite fruits, literally jumping up and down over healthy snacks and popular gym-class games.

"The toys have changed over the years," said Maureen Silk-Eglit, a school social worker at Guilderand for two decades, who helped organize the Lynnwood event. "Now the boys talk about video games," she told us, rather than organizing pick-up ball games. "The girls used to play hopscotch or jump rope," she went on. "Kids don’t have the same outdoor games they used to. It’s more sedentary, less interactive.

"Before, they used to connect with other kids in their community and be able to work together and cooperate"Kids used to have their own lives. Now it’s more programmed."

During school recess, she said, is the only time some kids still have active and interactive play.

We hope the movement for healthy eating and living gathers momentum from our schools and spreads to our community. It’s the only way to ensure the health of future generations.

Families, Silk-Eglit told us, "are the primary educators." She went on, "They can see that their children have life goals, so they are stronger and feel better mentally and physically."

Maybe it would help if we think of healthy living as a privilege — a gift that most of us can enjoy without special effort. Our reporter Jo E. Prout wrote a poignant column this week about the Albany Therapeutic Riding Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

"I’ve seen the peace that settles over the riders, who leave caregivers and crutches behind," Prout writes, "as they guide their horse away from the mounting ramp. Atop a horse, the riders experience freedom of movement and the thrill of sport""

The mother of one of the riders described the "great feeling" and "positive energy" her daughter has after riding. "It really helps with her emotional well-being," she said.

We should each try to discover or re-discover that thrill of sport and encourage it in others for the well-being of our community.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

Horses bring peace and purpose to riders who cast aside crutches and caregivers

By Jo E. Prout

If you follow the tree-lined, unpaved Martin Road in New Scotland to its end, and walk down to the bottom of the hill at the base of the Helderbergs, you’ll find horses, laughing students, and friendly faces. For 25 years, the Albany Therapeutic Riding Center has been nestled into our collective backyard, drawing riders from all over the Capital Region, and volunteers of all ages.

As a longtime volunteer and board member for the riding center, I’ve seen the peace that settles over the riders, who leave caregivers and crutches behind as they guide their horses away from the mounting ramp. Atop a horse, the riders experience freedom of movement and the thrill of sport, with the help of volunteers who accompany them.

The riding center serves children and adults who have emotional, physical, or mental disabilities. Instructor Chris Lehman has shared her passion for horses and riders since she began the center a quarter-century ago.

Lehman is different from other instructors I have worked with at this and another center. Each center was accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, called NARHA. Other instructors love horses, and share their love for horses with willing students. Lehman loves horses, but the drive that has kept the riding center going for so long involves her long-term commitment to, and interest in, the individual riders and the benefits they derive from her lessons.

Becky Anthony, 20, has been riding with Lehman for 10 years.

"She enjoys it," said Becky’s mother, Rachelle Anthony. "It’s good exercise. In a world for Becky that is out of control with her seizures"when she’s riding that horse, she’s deciding whether to turn left. Chris builds a lot of choice into it."

Anthony said that the lessons build physical strength, as Becky reaches for objects while maintaining her balance on her horse. Lehman’s lessons incorporate calming background music with games riders play on horseback. For example, riders may direct their horse through a maze of traffic cones to place a ball in a mailbox set at saddle height on the other side of the arena.

"It helps a variety of students in a variety of ways," Lehman said.

"Becky has such a great feeling, a positive energy, after she leaves Chris that carries her through her week. It really helps with her emotional well-being. I’ve seen such a difference since the riding lessons," Anthony said.

"I like to see the joy on the students’ faces when they’re out here doing their lessons," said volunteer Linda Masullo. "It’s something they look forward to all week."

Volunteers at the riding center walk beside the riders, helping them, if necessary, to maintain their balance. They also lead the horses with lead ropes. Each rider requires two to three volunteers.

Like neighboring farmers, Lehman watches the Weather Channel constantly to arrange the riding schedule.

"Without an indoor arena, you are very much open to the weather," she said. Rain or ice that might not bother other riders make the sport too dangerous for riders with disabilities who are accompanied by volunteers on the ground. Weather affects riders’ ability to travel from across the region, also. When bad weather threatens, riders and volunteers wait for a call.

Volunteer Brenda Tompkins helps make the several calls each day through bad weather seasons. If no call comes, volunteers and riders set out for the riding center and spend an hour enjoying the horses, the fresh air, and each other.

The need for volunteers is chronic. Michelle Bub, a graduating senior from Bethlehem High School, started volunteering last year because of her school’s community-service requirement. She quickly finished her 20 hours by December last year, but she’s stayed on and logged many more.

"I’ve always loved horses, and I have a couple cousins who have disabilities," Bub said. She volunteers as a side walker with Becky.

Quinn Tompkins leads Becky on Tugboat Teddy, called Teddy for short. Tompkins is a graduating senior from Voorheesville.

"I like horses. I have two miniature horses," Tompkins said. She has volunteered since she turned 14, the minimum age required for riding-center volunteers. Tompkins will attend Smith College in Massachusetts in the fall. Bub will attend Geneseo.

Summer vacations loom, and a longtime adult volunteer is also moving away. Lehman is facing her busiest riding season with a loss of volunteers.

"I’m optimistic about it," Lehman said.

Volunteer Jennifer Hamilton contributes to the optimism. Hamilton is the board’s treasurer, and a constant help during lessons and daily animal care.

The riding center hires a part-time worker for heavy farm work, but the rest of the operation is completely volunteer. Lehman runs a petting zoo — for hire out, only — with some of the other animals housed at the riding center. Caring for all of them takes up to two hours at a time, twice a day, and often longer during the winter when snow, ice, and cold challenge the volunteers.

"Funding has always been an issue, but she does well with what she has," Anthony said about Lehman. Lessons cost about $20, but Lehman offers adjusted rates so that students are not turned away. Volunteers are always needed to help with riding center fund-raisers, and new board members with fund-raising skills are welcome.

Asked if she would offer therapeutic riding lessons for another 25 years, Lehman did not hesitate.

"Yeah. Of course, I am. I’ll be wheeling my wheelchair down," Lehman said. The volunteers gathered around her laughed and said they would have the horses ready for her.

"You hear that, Teddy"" Lehman called. "Another 25 years more of this."

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