ProYouth’s HEART program at Lincoln Elementary in Exeter honored with statewide designation for healthy behaviors

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

EXETER – One in three children in Tulare County will develop Type II diabetes during their lifetime, the fifth highest rate of diabetes in the state. Ten percent of those with diabetes will be hospitalized and suffer long-term side effects and one quarter of those hospitalized will have a foot or leg amputated. 

Many programs have been tried at the elementary school level to help children learn to exercise more and eat healthier food before they fall into bad, lifelong habits later life, but the incidence of diabetes remains on the rise. But at Lincoln Elementary School in Exeter, the HEART Afterschool Program is earning statewide recognition for their efforts to prevent K-5 children from becoming part of the alarming statistics.

On May 16, the HEART program at Lincoln was named one of just 38 Health Behaviors Learning Centers in California by the Center for Collaborative Solutions (CCS), a statewide non-profit whose mission is to improve the health of Californians through education. Dr. Andi Fletcher, chief consultant for CCS, said Tulare County ProYouth, the non-profit umbrella for the HEART program, was the only multi-site publicly funded program to have more than two sites make the list, with the other two at Goshen and Crowley elementary schools in the Visalia Unified School District. 

“Becoming a certified Health Behaviors Learning Center is a rigorous process and Lincoln has an amazing site record,” Dr. Fletcher said. “I have worked with over 200 multi-site programs and [ProYouth] has done the best.”

Dr. Fletcher said the HEART program at Lincoln had set itself apart from similar afterschool sites because every staff member is engaged and nearly every student is actively participating in activities. 

“Often times you’ll see the older kids standing on the sidelines because they think it isn’t cool,” she said. “But at Lincoln students all the way through fifth grade are enthusiastic and participating.”

HEART at Lincoln also integrates exercise and nutrition into everything they do. Each school day afternoon, more than 160 students at Lincoln start with some dancing and calisthenics, a healthy meal and then a physical activity such as obstacle courses, yoga and sports. They then move into project-based learning pathways in computer science, such as coding with regular stretch breaks; health science, such as learning to cook healthy meals; agriculture sciences, such as working in the school garden; and performing arts, such as movement and dance. 

HEART is one of fewer than 5% of afterschool programs to meet national recommendations for students to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day. The site also boasts 93% enrollment each day after school.

Fletcher said the site met or exceeded all six of the Healthy Behaviors Exemplary Practices for the designation, including having vision purpose and intentionality; integrating healthy eating, physical activity and youth development; offering experiences that are engaging, exciting and meaningful; develop partnerships with parents and the community; support healthy eating habits by encouraging students to take advantage of school meals; and securing adequate and sustainable funding to continue the program. 

“You are not only changing lives, you are saving them,” said Dr. Fletcher. “Kids are doing more of these activities at home so this becomes a healthy habit. And when they feel better, they do better and that continues over the course of their lives.”

Veronica Berber Gonzalez, site director for HEART at Lincoln Elementary for the last two years, said her students have a learned a lot about exercise and nutrition since the program began.

“They used to want pizza and cupcakes at all of their parties and now they bring fruit and vegetables,” Berber Gonzalez said. “We’re excited to get this award.”

The HEART program came to Exeter Unified early on when in 1999 Rocky Hill Elementary became the first HEART Afterschool program site outside of the Visalia Unified School District, followed by Lincoln in 2001. Former Exeter Unified Superintendent and current ProYouth vice president Renee Whitson said she was excited to see the HEART programs grow over the last 17 years in Exeter. 

“HEART is really an extension of the classroom,” said Whitson. “It is collaborative, promotes critical thinking and communication skills at the core of what teachers are doing earlier in the day.”

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