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Yes, Virginia, There is a Healthy Alternative

Holiday dinnerJust like the rest of the country, South Carolina is looking for ways to improve nutrition and physical activity among its children as, nationwide, poor food choices and inactivity increasingly have a negative impact on young people. In the campaign to stem the tide, preschools and childcare centers offer perfect venues for influencing health behaviors and attitudes at a stage of life when habits and preferences are still being formed. Such efforts carry the added benefit of improved nutrition and physical activity knowledge among parents and caregivers as they interact with children in these settings. An innovative program called "Color Me Healthy" brings this message of healthy eating and healthy living directly to the populations who most need to hear it by emphasizing a complete approach involving the individual, family, and community.

"Color Me Healthy," developed by the North Carolina Division of Public Health and North Carolina Cooperative Extension, and adopted by South Carolina's Division of Obesity Prevention and Control, is an education curriculum designed primarily for children ages 4-5 that teaches lessons about nutrition and physical activity through lively classroom interaction. CDC funds both states' programs and also provides training, technical assistance, and other resources. The program incorporates color, music, and the senses to teach children that healthy food and physical activity are fun. To date, more than 16,000 children in South Carolina have participated in the program, and now the Division of Obesity Prevention and Control is planning to implement an enhanced pilot intervention of "Color Me Healthy" to more directly target adults and hopefully result in policy and environmental changes.

But at least one community in South Carolina isn't waiting to start getting healthy.

The Little Church that Could

Karen Graham, a health educator in Spartanburg, was working late one evening, feeling a bit frustrated as she made revisions to a walking program for a local school district. As the evening cleaning crew worked its way down the hall near Karen's office, one of ladies on the crew poked her head in the door and asked, "Are you Karen?"

Caught a bit off guard, she responded "Well, yes…why?"

Smith family at Saint John's Church  
Courtesy Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal  

The woman's eyes lit up and a smile filled her face as she began to tell Karen how they'd met once before. Her name was Virginia, and she'd attended a "Color Me Healthy" training through Spartanburg's congregational nursing program. Following the training, not only had Virginia trained the children of her congregation—St. John's Baptist Church in Wellford, a few miles outside of Spartanburg—but she had brought the program's message of healthier living to most of the adult members of her tiny church.

Virginia is not only a member of St. John's; she's also the pastor's wife and takes on a leadership role in coordinating many activities of the church and its outreach. Virginia's church did not have a parish nurse or even a member connected with any aspect of the health care profession. The closest fit was Virginia herself, who had served as a home-health aid for many years; so, in spite of her many other responsibilities, Virginia was determined to explore what the program might have to offer. She felt a great responsibility for her congregation and understood that St. John's had a wonderful opportunity to improve the health and wellness of its members.

So Virginia began to take a closer look at her congregation. Several members were overweight or even obese. Others suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and asthma. Nearly half of the tiny church's 16 children were already overweight. Parents were concerned about not only the potential health problems but also the effect that being overweight might have on the children's self-esteem. Many felt that making a change was an almost impossible task. Then, the 55-year-old assistant pastor suffered a heart attack.

Virginia was more determined than ever to make the health of her congregation a priority. Her first step: attend a congregational nursing monthly meeting. And that's when she learned about "Color Me Healthy."

Following the initial training, Virginia was convinced that her church members could benefit greatly from the program. She immediately planned a "Color Me Healthy Saturday" for the children of the congregation. Before the big day, she distributed healthy recipes from program newsletters to adults in the church, asking each to prepare a dish for the Saturday celebration.

While the adults laid out the food, the children learned the songs of the "Color Me Healthy" curriculum, took an imaginary trip to Mr. and Mrs. Smith's farm (a teaching tool of the program), and participated in several other lessons. The adults joined in with the sing-a-long, and the whole congregation prepared healthy (and yummy!) fruit smoothies. The day was a huge success, and Virginia and her fellow church members realized that learning—and passing on—these important lessons could actually be fun.

  Smith family at podium
  Courtesy Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal

Following that first event, as life at St. John's continued through the typical events of a small, Southern church (such as teas, homecomings, and the pastor's anniversary), the lessons of "Color Me Healthy" were not forgotten. As Virginia confided, so many church gatherings involve food—typically anything from cakes and pies to fried chicken. And while these favorites are still served, members now also bring healthier options like fruit and vegetable trays.

Virginia admits that the vegetable trays are not yet everybody's favorite, but adds with a smile that the fruit tray is almost always finished by the end of the day. In fact, at a pastor's anniversary celebration, Virginia and the church's kitchen staff planned a menu that included no fried food whatsoever. Instead, the congregation feasted on a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy alternatives—and maybe a few cakes and pies, too.

"Color Me Healthy" is now a theme that is woven into regular children's program activities at St. John's. Virginia is convinced that her tiny congregation is paying more attention to eating healthy foods and being more physically active. She has real hope that this will lead to the adoption of healthy lifestyle habits by every member.

Virginia—just one of over 800 people across South Carolina who have been trained to teach "Color Me Healthy"—decided to make a difference in the lives of her friends and neighbors, and she did it using this  program as the catalyst, adapting it to meet the needs of her church. And the results have made a lasting impact.

For educator Karen Graham, Virginia's story—and the promise it holds for the health of people everywhere—made that late night at the office a moment worth remembering.


Page last modified: 1/10/2007