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Mission Hill School makes strides with wellness campaign

Posted by Roy Greene  October 13, 2011 11:54 AM

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(Photo by Kristina Finn for

Chef Didi Emmons working with students at the Mission Hill School in Roxbury.

On a recent Wednesday at Mission Hill School, hands flew up as chef Didi Emmons challenged a class of 6- to 8-year olds to see how many fruits they could name.

“Mangos! Tomatoes! Apples! Marshmallows!” answered the students.

Emmons wasn’t discouraged by the last answer.

“Some of them know food a little bit, and some of them really don’t know what a whole food is,” said Emmons. “We’re really starting at the very bottom, trying to get them to understand that whole foods are a better choice.”

Mission Hill School in Roxbury offers unique programming geared to promoting wellness in school and at home, at a time when childhood obesity is at an all-time high and has attracted national attention.

Similar efforts are being made around the country since Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign in 2010 to help stop the growing rates of childhood obesity.

Mission Hill was ahead of the curve, incorporating nutrition and fitness, as well as mental health and social elements, into its curriculum before the national effort gained traction, said Ayla Gavins, the school's principal. She said the “Let’s Move” initiative has made it “not seem so unusual that we’d want to do something like this.”

School nurse Georgie Marks said programs that develop physical wellness are woven into the school's education plan. The school operates on the premise that "to get a healthy student, you have to get a healthy body. And that is what you want, if they are going to learn or desire to learn.”

Mission Hill School has a corps of staff, whom they call "Wellness Champions," who volunteer to brainstorm programming ideas and bring them back to the rest of the school’s employees, explained Gavins. Among the initiatives already in place are Wellness Wednesdays, Farm School field trips, a bike-riding program, and Family Nights.

Every Wednesday, students participate in a Wellness Wednesday program. The children choose a session from a menu of options and concentrate on that choice for six weeks. The options include physical fitness, healthy cooking, relaxation, and sexual education for those old enough.

The school brings in professionals from the community, such as chef Emmons, for the Wellness Wednesday sessions. The Sportsmen's Tennis Club runs a tennis clinic for students every week; Mambo Pa Ti offers salsa and merengue dancing; and Emmons runs healthy snack sessions.

“Hi Chef Didi!” yelled a student, as she waited impatiently for the cooking class to begin.
Emmons was teaching about the "fun in fruit" by making fruit popsicles. She believes that learning about foods and how to prepare them is the best way for people to stay healthy.

“Getting kids involved in the kitchen, getting their hands dirty, is probably the best way to make sure that they are eating well,” Emmons said.

Although Wednesdays are the designated day to focus on wellness, encouraging kids to be healthy is a focus throughout the year. Dani Coleman, the school's director of external affairs, talked about the rare opportunities the students are offered, such as fieldtrips to The Farm School in Athol.

Every year, kindergarten through eighth-graders go on field trips to The Farm School, where they learn how to grow vegetables, take care of farm animals, and tend to the orchards. Students look forward to fourth grade, when they spend an entire weekend at the farm. They are taught to work on the farm and must prepare every meal using ingredients they gather there, Coleman said.

In addition, Mission Hill offers a one-week bike-riding program during the school year. The 'Bikes not Bombs' group comes equipped with enough bikes for each class to spend an hour riding around the neighborhood. For some students, it is their only chance to learn how to ride a bike.

“Sometimes you see the older kids with training wheels,” Marks said.

She said the school tries to have a large palate of wellness programs to try to get every student hooked on being healthy.

“If there’s something we don’t offer and we can offer, we’ll look into it, because we really want to expose the kids to every opportunity,” Marks said.

The school also offers Family Nights once a month, attracting 40 to 50 percent of parents to programs that offer wellness tips and guidelines, according to Gavins. Other gatherings focus on wellness issues that parents express concerns about, such as how to get their children to go to bed at night.

Students are sent home with “Chop Chop” magazine, a cooking magazine focused on cooking with kids. They are taught how to make recipes from the magazine in school, and then encouraged to cook them with their families.

Gavins said the school will continue to expand its programming.

“There are always areas [of wellness] we are continuing to think about,” she said.

This article is being published under an arrangement between Northeastern University and the Boston Globe, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (

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