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La. kids learn about fitness, nutrition and fun from paramedics and firefighters

NEW ORLEANS, La. Samantha Gambino is having so much fun getting Fit as a Firefighter, she said she hopes the summer camp will be extended throughout the entire summer.

The Slidell 10-year-old is one of 60 youths, ages 8-12, from throughout the parish who spent the past week learning how good choices can lead to healthier lifestyles as part of a free pilot program for overweight children.

Mother Nature and 100-plus degree heat index temperatures were the first challenges overcome by the campers as well the medical and fitness professionals, firefighters and paramedics who volunteered to spend the week leading the youths in everything from firefighter games to games of chase with K9 search and rescue dogs.

Larry Hess, chief of St. Tammany Fire Protection District 1, said he felt the kids were handling the heat better than most of the adults. "It doesn't faze them, but it's been pretty rough on the firefighters," Hess said with a laugh.

The campers were assisted in keeping their cool as activities were rotated in and out of the District 1 training facilities at Camp Villere. Divided into four age groups, the first would receive a fire engine tour while the second group was being certified in CPR, the third group was learning how to read food labels and the proper way to lose weight, and the fourth group was receiving the latest information on stranger danger and seat belt safety.

Every minute of the entire week, however, was dedicated to learning about healthy living. That included the hours during which the youths were not in class, as parents reenforced by night the messages being taught by day.

"You have to eat more than one cup of vegetables a day," said 10-year-old Lexy Pearson of Slidell.

"Your body can fit through a little crack, and it's not meant to hit concrete," said Elijah Simms, 12, from Lacombe.

"Don't just drink soft drinks," said 10-year-old Kristen Woods of Slidell.

"There are no good foods and bad foods," explained Harold Simmons, 12, of Slidell. "You have to watch how much you eat. That's what's important."

"I watch too much TV," admitted Casey Casler, 9, of Lacombe.

"You can die by eating junk food," warned Adriana Esponge, 9, of Slidell.

"Some foods -- you think they're healthy and good but they can have a lot of sugar," said Emma Landeche, 9, of Slidell. Emma described dried pineapple slices as a prime example. "There's the sugar already in the pineapple, and then extra sugar is added on top of that!"

An entire day of programming was dedicated to self-esteem and team building which Slidell Memorial Hospital Parenting Center parenting educator Taffy Morrison said can help the youths cope with everything from teasing by classmates to negative self-images. "It's who you are inside that counts," Morrison said.

Keeping that attitude in mind, the youths should be able to focus their attention on getting healthier "one day at a time," she said.

"A lot of the information they received is information they may already have been taught at home. But a 'mom' can tell you something all day long. Sometimes you have to hear it from a 'professional' before you actually listen," Morrison said.

Michelle Shoultz, Slidell Memorial Hospital clinical director of women's and children's services, said the need for the program was great, as sedimentary lifestyles and poor choices are among the key factors leading to youth obesity. The Fit as a Firefighter program coordinator, Shoultz plans to seek National Fire Academy's endorsement of the camp as a national program to fight childhood obesity.

Shoultz explained that only children with weight issues, and their siblings, were allowed to register for the camp presented by Slidell Memorial, Fire District 1 and Cross Gates Athletic Club. That exclusivity was important to the success of the camp.

"You can see their self-esteem growing," Morrison agreed. "They're not competing against the athletes who are always winning all the games. They're on an even playing field, and they're having fun."

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