Personifying the Power of Coach for Kids

By Wendy Siskin, Senior Program Director

It does not feel that long ago when I joined Wellness in the Schools in 2011 as a coach on the PS 87 recess yard. When I moved into a leadership role, I was charged with building the Coach for Kids program to match the impact of the Cook for Kids program – fighting childhood obesity using two sides of the same coin. I always viewed our Coach for Kids program to be more than a recess program, just like our Cook for Kids program is more than a cafeteria program. The impact we set out to make is a big one. Our vision/end goal stands at the very top of a steep mountain that not only takes tireless miles of steps, but people helping people, holding hands, inspiring one another to keep fighting, and joining forces to become even more resilient. Wellness in the Schools meets communities where they are and shifts their entire school culture, diving deeper than the recess yard and the cafeteria. That is the heart of our program. To support that fully, we have created systems for schools to build a comprehensive wellness model, reaching the mindsets and habits of the administrators, teachers, parents, and the students.

My first step in building a strong Coach for Kids program was to build an even stronger team. We are now heading into our 5th year of our Fellowship program with Adelphi University. Almost 100% of our WITS Coaches are graduate students, earning their Master’s Degree in Sports Based Youth Development Physical Education. This highly competitive fellowship has raised the bar and the expectations of our coach program. And its success has garnered the attention of many other universities interested in similar fellowships. The impact of our work has also positioned us as an expert in this academic space, and we were invited to present at SHAPE America in March, one of the leading conferences on fitness education in this country.

We just launched our first Annual Move for Kids campaign, through which several fitness studios and influencers in NYC and Miami raised money for WITS. I received the opportunity to introduce WITS to the international audience of Daily Burn, an online streaming fitness platform with a membership of approximately 2.5 million. Even though the thought of working out on live video was somewhat frightening, I took on the challenge. After the invigorating workout, I was able to share our work in a 10-minute interview. While I was a little sweaty throughout the entire interview, it certainly helped to build our Coach for Kids network. This campaign highlighted so many passionate groups of people that heard of WITS for the first time, who all genuinely want to join our mission in some way.

Workout for Kids – Daily Burn

Does your kiddo love working out with you? Here’s an exercise routine led by Wendy Siskin, Senior Director of Wellness in the Schools, that will get both you and your little one moving.

Posted by Daily Burn on Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It is an exciting time for Wellness in the Schools. I continue to follow the inspiration from our fearless leader and founder, Nancy Easton. I am honored and inspired daily by the leadership role I have been given. My role this year as Senior Program Director has allowed me to view our work with an even broader lens, and as a thought leader. Our work in NYC, the largest school district in the country, remains an incredibly valuable testing market as we develop more programs across the country.

Our WITS culture lives by the Phil Jackson quote, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” In order for our programs to be successful, we must empower our teams to give our schools the tools, the knowledge, and the confidence to be able to sustain them. We are now at a place where our Chefs and Coaches work together as equals, both sides of the coin, teaching as a team to show the power of good food and fitness to end childhood obesity.

I’m consistently challenged and inspired by the work we do and everyone who holds hands with us to empower our younger generations. This is just the beginning.

Renowned Chef Emily Luchetti Joins WITS West

By Jesse Kramer

Pastry chef Emily Luchetti has followed the work of Wellness in the Schools for years, but living and working in California had prevented her from getting involved in a hands-on way. So when WITS expanded our CookCamps to the Bay Area in 2017, the opportunity to make an impact excited her.

“I’d always wished I could be more involved in WITS because I believe so much in the work,” Luchetti said. “So when WITS arrived in California, I was the first one to raise my hand to get involved.”

Luchetti began her culinary career working in some of New York City’s top restaurants. After seven years in NYC, she moved to San Francisco in 1984 as part of the opening team at Stars Restaurant. Three years later, she transitioned to a pastry chef role and immediately found a renewed sense of creativity and inspiration on that side of the kitchen.

Currently, Luchetti works as the Chief Pastry Officer for Big Night Restaurant Group in San Francisco, overseeing dessert programs at the company’s four restaurants.

While Luchetti enjoys her sweets, she stresses the importance of balancing dessert within a healthy diet for both children and adults. She feels our society has come to expect dessert as a daily occurrence when it really should be a treat. This belief inspired her to found the “dessertworthy” movement to empower people to be more mindful of their sugar and fat indulgences.

“I’ve always been interested in kids eating healthy food because none of us, as adults, can work productively if we haven’t eaten or have been eating poorly,” Luchetti said. “You get really ‘hangry’ and just can’t function. So how can we expect our kids to perform well in school if they’re not eating well?”

Partnering with Luchetti, who has amassed more than 30 years of restaurant experience, brings a special combination of expertise, credibility, and exposure to our work in California.

“Emily brings decades of restaurant experience to our work out west,” California Program Director Hollie Greene said. “Our partners are thrilled to benefit from not only her knowledge but also her hands-on and practical approach to supporting our district cooks.”

WITS brought our Labs to California in 2015 when Hollie, one of our very first NYC cooks, moved out west. Hollie worked in one school, then six schools with the support of Food and Nutrition Services Director Miguel Villarreal. This fall, we launched our CookCamp model and have begun working with school food staff in the kitchen toward the goal of creating a full-year, seasonal menu.

Through the Golden Gate Dietetic program, a dozen dietetic interns have joined WITS in a win-win partnership, as our powerful but small California team gets some extra help and the interns receive an opportunity for hands-on experience with child nutrition.

Pictured: A dietetic intern helps out during second grade Kale Labs.

“The interns get an up-close view of the preventive side of nutrition,” Hollie said. “It’s amazing when they see how much of a change they can make. A kid will come in saying he hates broccoli, and by the end of the day he’ll be stuffing his mouth with it.”

Wellness in the Schools’ vision of working in partnership with schools and driving systemic change resonates with Luchetti.

“WITS looks at the way the overall system works, and that’s how to make it a win-win for everybody,” Luchetti said. “It’s so important to recognize that the existing school workers and cooks are a valuable part of the solution. The people that are working in there are doing a really good job, and we just have to give them the tools and the resources to do an even better job.”

Pictured: Chef Hollie leads Kale Labs with second graders

WITS will continue to grow in California next school year with the implantation of CookCamp, which Luchetti will help organize. CookCamp provides intensive, upfront training for school cooks so they can gain the necessary skills to prepare healthy, scratch-cooked meals for students on their own. The pilot program in Brooklyn last September was a major success.

Well-respected, passionate chef partners like Luchetti have been crucial in launching our work to new heights in other parts of the country. We’re excited to advance our impact in California as she blazes new trails with WITS.

Emily Luchetti’s Oatmeal Almond Cookies

  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1 1/14 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spread the almonds in one layer in a small baking pan and put in the (preheated) oven. Set a timer for 10 minutes and check the almonds to see if they’re a light golden brown. If not, toast 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool.

With an electric mixer or by hand, beat the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Add 1 egg, mix until well combined, and then add the second egg. Stir in the toasted almonds, oats, flour, baking soda, and salt until well combined.

Put 2 racks in the upper and lower thirds of the (preheated) oven. Place 1-tablespoon (slightly rounded, not flat, not heaping) mounds of dough 2 inches apart on the parchment-lined baking sheets. If you have one you can also use a small ice cream scoop to form the cookies and plop them out onto the sheets (it’s much faster and easier).

Flatten the mounds slightly with your hands or the bottom of a glass. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the cookies have browned lightly on the edges but still are soft in the middle if you press them lightly with your finger. Although they may seem underdone, don’t be tempted to let them bake longer— they’ll firm up as they cool. So that the cookies bake evenly you may need to rotate the pans in the oven or switch racks halfway through.

Let the cookies cool to room temperature before removing them from the parchment (if you can wait that long).


Kung Fu Master Pedro Goncalves Shares His Gifts with WITS

By Rodrigo Rabanal

As a waiter working double-shifts at Oceana Mondays through Thursdays, Pedro Goncalves had been looking for a place to volunteer on his Fridays off. When Chef Bill Telepan joined Oceana, Pedro learned about Wellness in the Schools and looked no further.

“I was looking for a way to donate my time specifically to young people in need,” stated Pedro. “When I learned about WITS, I thought it was the perfect match.”


Pedro was raised in a military family and had been exposed to martial arts from a very young age. From Karate, Judo, and Taekwondo, he was doing it all. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, when he moved to NYC that he met his sisu (teacher) Danny Cuevas, who introduced him to Kung Fu. He has since dedicated his mind, body, and spirit to learning from Cuevas and his Grand-Master Leung Shum at Ying Jow Pai. He has spent more than 30 years perfecting the art.

Now, a master of Eagle Claw Kung Fu, a style of Chinese martial arts known for its gripping techniques and pressure point strikes, Pedro is using his skills to teach kids and their families at our Family Fitness Fun Nights. “Kids sometimes don’t get an outlet to express themselves, and learn something that’s not only fun but also healthy. I thought teaching them Kung Fu would address all of that.”

Pedro looked up to his grandmother his entire life. From her, he learned that “without work, there is nothing. Sometimes, life is not just about the work you do for yourself but the work you do to help others.” Pedro has truly embraced this motto by working on his days off to help empower kids and families at our schools. He says he learns just as much from kids as they would from him, on lessons ranging from patience to self-empowerment.

Although Wellness in the Schools is in its 13th year, Pedro believes the organization is just getting started when it comes to the potential impact on children all over the country. “The kids that started with WITS will impact more lives as they get older. Every generation needs to pass something good to the next. I think WITS is helping our youth today plant a healthy seed by educating them on how to cultivate it and nurture it, and by helping them grow it into a beautiful garden of health and wellness.

“You need a big heart, and a giving heart, to be working for an organization like WITS. I’m glad I can volunteer and be a part of this amazing movement. I’m just one of the gardeners.”

A master gardener at that.

WITS Warrior: Dr. Natalia Russo

By Joan Chung

Dr. Natalia Russo is the principal at PS 145. This is her 5th year as principal, and she has been with the New York City Department of Education since 2001. She brought us to her building in 2013, and thanks to a grant by Goldman Sachs Assets Management, we were able to provide our flagship program to both PS 145 and West Prep Academy Middle School. Dr. Russo is one of our strongest advocates – her support for our programs is instrumental, and has helped us to pilot our initiatives such as nutrition education and cafeteria branding. We are grateful to the school for always keeping their doors wide open for Wellness in the Schools, and we are honored to feature Dr. Russo as a WITS Warrior.

“I came to PS 145 in the middle of October 2013, and one of the things Cidalia Costa, the Magnet Specialist from our co-located school West Prep Academy, first brought up to me was that she wanted to bring WITS to the school. We just jumped on this immediately. It’s been really great just giving kids the opportunity to be creative, to learn about healthy eating and lifestyles. And in the first year WITS was here, we changed from the processed menu to the alternative menu. It was all just perfect timing. At first, I thought I’d get pushback from the kids with the changed cafeteria food, but they really do love it. WITS has been a key part in the turnaround of the school – they give kids a more well-rounded awareness of what life is about. It’s not just about reading and writing, but about all these other aspects of life; we have to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally, and a lot of that stems from nutrition. And WITS really helps make school what it is meant to be – a fun learning environment.”

“When I graduated from college, I went and got a job in investment banking, but it didn’t really do it for me. I ended up in teaching because of my brother – he was a science and math teacher, and the principal at his school needed a teacher. I was offered and accepted a job at MS 44. During the first 90 seconds that I was in front of the class of seventh graders – I don’t know, there was just something about it. I knew that the classroom was where I was supposed to be. After a couple of years in middle school, I ended up in an elementary school, PS 166, where I met an Assistant Principal who would eventually make me his AP when he became Principal. That’s how I stumbled into administration. Someone gave me an opportunity. I’ve always worked in District 3. This is the neighborhood I grew up in. After working as an AP in District 3 for several years, I spent some time working at Central for the Teacher Recruitment and Quality Office. While working at Central, I was eventually tapped to come into this school to take the helm of PS 145 in 2013.”

Pictured: PS 145 Cafeteria Staff

“When I saw some of the lunches, I was so shocked at the stuff they’d give to kids. The hamburger patties were awful, and those processed chicken nuggets! I saw kids coming in with Doritos for breakfast, and those huge cans of Arizona iced teas. I just felt so privileged to have had access to so much physical fitness and proper nutrition while growing up. I just needed to give that opportunity to the kids because they may not have the same opportunities that I was afforded. And that’s why WITS is so important to me. This whole school is kind of a reflection of who I am. It’s not purposeful – it’s just all I know.”

“The work is intense, but I just take it one day at a time. I believe in what I am doing. A big part of me is driven by the fact that not all children have the same opportunities. I could have gone here, to this school. I was just so lucky with my parents, and all my teachers. If I can give these students a slight shot of feeling like they can succeed – that thought is what keeps me going. Just knowing that somewhere down the line, a child might not have been exposed to something had I not been here.”

Pictured: Coach Rob of PS 145

“Sports and nutrition have always been a big part of my life, even as a kid. At the school I went to growing up, I never was served processed food. I remember early in the morning, I would smell the food cooking in the cafeteria, and that was just normal for me. And at home, my family and I never really went out to dinner. We weren’t exactly wealthy – parents worked 2 jobs, money was not a luxury, and we might go out to eat once every 6 months. Home-cooked meals were always just a staple for us, and my mom was always very conscious of not cooking things that were unhealthy. It’s just the way I was wired. And I was always involved in sports, like volleyball, basketball, and track. Physical fitness has been a part of my life since I could remember, and that’s just something I thought all kids had. When I started working in the public school system, I was surprised to see that kids didn’t get Physical Education every day.

Pictured: Chef Katie and Coach Rob, the WITS Chef/Coach at PS 145

“I first learned about WITS at PS 84, when I was an assistant principal there. They had just introduced the program to the school, and I remember falling in love with the program. This whole concept of kids actually cooking, the labs, the importance of nutrition and fitness and leading healthy lifestyles – I thought it was very progressive for a public school. I remember thinking, ‘If I’m ever a principal, I’d definitely call on WITS!’ The program, along with our other after-school programs and extracurricular activities, have changed the culture of the school so much. Students are engaged, and there are so many opportunities for them to express themselves. It’s been a very significant turn-around.”

Pictured: Dr. Russo with Lux, PS 145’s therapy dog

“This past September, I was out sick for a week, but during that time we had our first “Dads Take your Child to School” day. Fathers were given the chance to participate in the WITS labs. When I came back to work, one father stopped me and said, “Oh my gosh, my kids always told me how much fun they have during WITS labs and I never really understood it, but to actually be there with Chef Katie and cooking with my kid was amazing!” A lot of fathers said similar things to me. And it really helped validate what we do, and the WITS program here. Many of our parents don’t normally have the time to come to instructional events. So it was pretty cool to have WITS be one of the things that impressed them the most while they were here.”

Pictured: Chef Katie of PS 145, in the branded cafeteria

“My favorite part of the WITS programs would have to be the WITS Labs and the Cafe Days. Our partner, Henry Rinehart (owner of Henry’s Restaurant), has been awesome. He’s really tried to hit all the stakeholders in the school. He works with students, and also helps feed our volunteers and teachers. This year, his focus has also been on parents. We’re trying to get parents to come into the school so we can teach them how to create healthy meals. It’s a lot of fun – the team from Henry’s comes in in their chef coats and the kids just get so excited, and are inspired to take ownership of the whole cooking process during the labs. The labs and cafe days really are an amazing experience for the kids, and they look forward to every single one. I just would never get rid of WITS. There’s no reason to ever do away with the program.  WITS should be in every single school.”

Pictured: Ethan and Amy, students at PS 145

“If I could tell one thing to the students, it would be to just figure out what they like. The happiest people in life are those who do what they actually enjoy. Try as many things as possible in life, so you can figure out what you like. I want them to always think that they should work where they want to work, not where they have to work.”

All photos taken by Melanie Dunea.