Second-grader Sha'nisa Williams loves getting to swim. And play dodgeball. And do Jazzercise.
Fifth-grader Byron Ezzard just likes running around the gym.
They are two of 40 participants this year in William Wells Brown Elementary's Jumpin' Jaguars after-school program, which encourages kids to exercise, eat well and make healthy lifestyle choices.
"It's a great program to have," said Jackie Branham, William Wells Brown's physical education teacher, who directs the Tuesday and Thursday after-school meetings of Jumpin' Jaguars along with Crystal Johnson, the school's social worker.
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"Unfortunately, a lot of our students just watch TV when they get home from school. There's no physical activity at home whatsoever," Branham said. "This program gives participating kids a chance to exercise and have fun doing it."
William Wells Brown students in first through fifth grades with body mass indexes equal to or greater than the 85th percentile for their age are invited to participate.
The program began four years ago at Johnson Elementary, and it moved to William Wells Brown when that school opened. The University of Kentucky Medical School launched and oversees the program, in collaboration with several community partners, including the YMCA of Central Kentucky, which provides free yearlong memberships to participants and their families; the Lexington Health Department, which leads classes for Jumpin' Jaguars parents on healthy meal preparation; and Community Trust Bank, which provides savings bonds at the end of the year to students who complete the program.
First- and second-year UK medical students and UK nursing and public health students — roughly 90 in all — work as coaches and mentors in the program. They take turns assisting Branham and Johnson in leading kids through an array of fun activities in the school's gym twice each week, including volleyball, jump rope, tennis, bowling, and work with resistance bands.
Twice monthly, participants are bused to the North Lexington YMCA for swim instruction.
UK recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Kentucky Diabetes Research Foundation to measure the program's effect on the health of participating students.
At UK, volunteer response has been so positive that there's a waiting list for mentors, said Dr. Jay Perman, dean of the UK College of Medicine and vice president for clinical affairs.
"Another theme in this, in addition to teaching children about physical fitness and nutrition, is that, through these mentorships, this is a program that exposes children to health care careers," Perman said. "We want to show them that when they grow up, if they make the right choices in school and work hard, they, too, may become a health care professional."
Fourth-year medical students Yasmin Parrish and Logan Davies were interns with the Jumpin' Jaguars program during their second year in UK's medical school. Both said the chance to work with the kids was a wonderful break from the intensity of their studies.
"It was a way to connect with people and realize the human aspect in medicine I'd always dreamed about," Davies said.
Parrish said she was moved by how close she became with the students over the course of a year.
"That was the part that surprised me, and that was really powerful to me," she said.
The program isn't just for the students. It takes a whole-family approach, encouraging parents to set positive examples — especially in food selection and healthy meal preparation.
"There are lots of opportunities for families to be involved," said Dr. Stephanie Rose, an assistant professor of internal medicine at UK who co-directs the program with Perman. "That's a crucial aspect of the program."
All the messages about staying fit and eating well seem to be getting through.
"The whole learning experience has been wonderful," said Shawne Williams, Sha'nisa's mother. "My daughter loves it. We've always been an active family, involved in sports and outdoor things. And I can really see her wanting to become more a part of all that, thanks to the Jumpin' Jaguars program. It's definitely encouraged her to become more active."
Octavia Robinson's son Michael Green, a fifth-grader, has been with the program since it started.
In that time, she has noticed that he has "cut down on what he eats a whole lot, and he's a lot more active now," she said.
"It's great how they interact with the kids," Robinson said of the program. "They get them to be active, eat right, and eat smart."