By: Celia Martinez
Children from the Near West Side community gathered at the Ellen Gates Starr Park, 2306 W. Maypole Ave, on Sunday July 8th to sign up for Health STARRS, a free 10-week program that teaches children ages 5-17 about healthy eating habits and exercise and trains them to run the Chicago Blackhawks’ Mad Dash to Madison 5K race in September.
“We have kids who are excited and enthusiastic to be here,” said Jamie Graves, co-chair of the Health STARRS program, “This actually didn’t start until 10:30 today and at 9 o’clock we already had kids showing up.”
Health STARRS was created three years ago through a collaboration between the Neighbor’s Development Network (NDN), an organization based in the Near West Side and committed to making their neighborhood a vibrant, safe and healthy environment for all its residents; the Junior League of Chicago, an organization of women dedicated to improving communities through voluntarism; and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Graves, who is co-chair of the program through the Junior League of Chicago, said she sees a lot of the same children come back and bring their friends. “I think the biggest thing we see is their level of self-esteem,” said Graves, “they feel good and positive about themselves.”
Andre Perrin, co-chair of NDN said he came up with the idea of starting a running program from driving around seeing children on street corners not doing anything. “I wanted to find a way of getting kids engaged and physically active,” said Perrin. “I’d like to see them set goals, achieve them and have ambition.”
And the program does just that. Children are partnered with volunteer mentors twice a week at the Ellen Gates Starr Park, where they are properly trained to run the 5K race and experience what its like to be a runner. The children also learn about the importance of wearing proper attire, something that is heavily relied on donations.
“The first year of the program, Nike donated the shoes,” said Perrin, “this year we have a surprise donor.”
Through Health STARRS, children will not only learn about the importance of exercising, but also the benefits of eating nutritious meals by providing children and their families hands-on nutrition classes and ideas on creating low-cost healthy meals. Children are also provided a free nutritious lunch every Sunday after their run.
Maria Lopez said this is the third year her two children, a 12 year-old girl and a 10 year-old boy have participated. “They learn about healthy food and how it impacts their life,” said Lopez of her children.
Lopez believes that children are more likely to continue eating nutritiously into adulthood if they start at a young age, something her children have already begun applying in their everyday lives. “They make healthier choices,” she said.
Health STARRS aims to build children’s self esteem as they learn about health and nutrition while strengthening their minds and bodies. If you would like to donate, volunteer or register your child (ren), contact Andre Perrin at email@example.com.