A Decade of Teamwork

By Marjorie Wolfson

As we come to a close of the 2018 school year, I take a moment to pause and reflect on our mission. For many of us who work in schools, the end of the year symbolizes a time to come together in celebration of our common purpose. Together we strive towards our shared goal of serving and educating kids and families. Together we are helping to inform the next generation, and our hope is that they will live long and fruitful lives. It is our time to take a break and spend time with our families.

I have been honored to have been part of WITS for the last 9 years. In over 120 schools across four states, we disrupt the norm and bring something unique to our communities. One of the reasons that we have been able to grow and reach more families is simply teamwork. The words collaboration, teamwork and partnership are synonymous with our work. Children are the messengers and, together, we are teaching them healthy habits to learn and live better. Together we are pushing towards whole-system innovation and making sense of what’s needed in today’s uncertain world.

As I come to a close in my tenure at WITS, I am delighted to share a few highlights. I have spent almost a decade in schools, developing and observing our programming, speaking to parents, administration, kids, community partners, school food staff, recess aids, and more. Through the years across all of our sites, I have seen communities respond to our work in such a positive way. Because of the importance of formal data, WITS engaged Columbia University Teachers College on a 2-year study to evaluate our work. By using seven schools as “WITS” schools, and seven schools as the Control (schools similar in terms of demographics and size but without WITS programming), the evaluation distinguished the positive effects of our programming on students.

Below are a few key takeaways that are integral to our work:

* There is great value in providing a wellness professional in schools to usher important wellness activities, classes and events.

* Chef and nutritionist-led nutrition education increases the consumption of healthy school lunch.

* Placing chefs and nutritionists at the salad bar encourages children to eat fruits and vegetables (Students in WITS schools ate more fruits and vegetables than students in Control schools – about 40% more).

* Students move more when fitness coaches lead activity breaks during the school day and indoor recess, a very inactive time of day (92% of boys and 94% of girls in Control schools were sedentary during Indoor recess in Winter 2016, while only 28% of boys and 22% of girls were sedentary in WITS schools).

* Wellness professionals can change the culture of schools by developing a holistic plan for year-long wellness events and activities.

It has been my honor and pleasure to work with an inspiring group of people, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished. I am very fortunate to have been part of the WITS community and for this, I will be forever grateful.

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Chef Anne’s Kitchen Show and Tell: From WITS BITS to Power Water

By Jesse Kramer

Chef Anne Williams is a modest person, but she can’t contain her excitement when talking about all the thank you notes she’s received from students over the years.

“Hundreds,” she says, “and overwhelmingly they mention the WITS BITS. That’s what they remember.”

Chef Anne will retire at the conclusion of the school year, but her work with Wellness in the Schools over the last decade has been instrumental to our growth and success. During her first year with WITS, Anne pioneered the implementation of WITS BITS, one of our core pieces of programming. The 20-minute classroom lessons have become a favorite among students. In these lessons, WITS Chefs use hands-on interactive demonstrations to teach basic nutrition concepts, such as the effects of eating too much sugar and fat.

The idea came to Anne when she faced obstacles marketing healthy lunch items to students at her first school. Anne realized she was spending all of her time in the kitchen and not enough time engaging students directly. To spark a connection with the students, Anne went into classrooms to give previews of lunch items, discuss salad bars, and make salad dressings. These were, unofficially, the first WITS BITS.

“It was a natural vehicle to get involved with the children,” says Anne. “It’s a lot of show and tell. The children feedback to me what they know — or think they know — and that makes them a lot more interested in what they have to share and what I have to say. It’s all about kids having ‘aha’ moments.”

As Anne developed relationships with students, she witnessed their interest in food, as well as her own popularity, surge.

“The feedback was obvious,” she says. “Suddenly the children wanted to have lunch with me. Every month or two, we would eat the school lunch together, and talk about what they liked and didn’t like.”

Anne has remained innovative through her final days at Wellness in the Schools. She has continued to expand the WITS BITS program, using, for example, a spiralizer in some lessons to the students’ delight. This past school year, she began adding fresh fruit to water to create Power Water, an idea she credits to Program Manager Errol Jones and WITS Chef Kisha Figueroa, and serving it during recess and WITS Play Days.

“Power Water allows the cooks and coaches to do something together,” Anne says. “It’s a way to motivate the kids to finish their exercise and teach them about hydration in a way they enjoy.”

Amazingly, Anne did not even begin culinary school until she was 50 years old. After growing tired of her job in the apparel industry, she found her true calling.

“The only thing I had a passion for and could get paid for was food,” Anne said.

After graduating from the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Anne worked several jobs in the food industry over the next 10 years — line cook, catering director, crisis management chef, and more. One day, she saw a job posting for Wellness in the Schools. The idea of working in schools and cooking healthy food for children resonated with her. She sent in her resume, and the rest is history.

“It took me 40 years to find a job I liked,” Anne says. “I like everything about working with Wellness in the Schools. I love the children, being in the kitchen, building relationships with the parents — the whole school environment. This job is everything I could’ve asked for.”

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Reflections: Coach PJ and Coach Jason

By Mallory Stellato

As the school year draws to a close, we say goodbye to another class of Adelphi University Fellows and prepare to welcome a new cohort of students. It is a unique partnership: candidates pursuing masters degrees in physical education and sports management at Adelphi University have the opportunity to serve as WITS Coaches for two years in exchange for full tuition coverage. Last year the first class of Adelphi Fellows graduated, and this year we thank Peter “PJ” Cody, Albert Gonzalez, and Steven Putkowski for their contributions to the schools where they have worked, and to their fellow coaches, wishing them the best in their future endeavors.

Below you will find lightly-edited reflections from Coach PJ, who graduated with a Masters in Sports-Based Youth Development on May 18, and from Coach Jason, who is finishing his first year in the program. Both agree that the program is an excellent opportunity to receive real life training and experience with children in public schools, while simultaneously learning the latest research and best practice in their graduate classrooms.

Coach PJ enrolled in the Adelphi program after teaching Physical Education in a charter school. Seeking the requisite masters degree to become a P.E. teacher in public schools, the Adelphi/WITS program was the perfect combination to move his career forward.

“Growing up on Long Island, it was the norm to have space to move around and play. Coming to the city as a teacher and coach, it was eye-opening to realize the lack of space and equipment in so many school buildings. In my WITS schools, P.S. 295BK, 108BK, and 160Q, I had to be creative coming up with games and activities that would be appropriate in the limited space.

“One of my schools does not have a gymnasium or auditorium for indoor recess. One day when it snowed, I took the kids to the cafeteria, then realized it was picture day and the only space available for kids to play was set up with photography equipment. On the fly, I set the kids up around the cafeteria tables and we did table aerobics. I led the kids in table push ups and dips, knowing that they were sitting for most of the day and there was a limited window to get their heart rates up. This, and many other examples, taught me how important it is to get kids moving, no matter what else is going on in the school day, and to be adaptable.

“My two years as a WITS Coach were different in that last year I worked in one school five days a week, and this year I work in three schools throughout the week, spending 1-2 days with each school. I’ve learned time management and prioritization skills, running from Brooklyn to Queens and juggling three different school administrations. With less time spent in each school, it was that much more necessary to develop positive relationships so that the time could be spent effectively and in the best interests of the students and school community.

“I’ve realized that whatever is bothering me and whatever is going on in the school day should not stand in the way of making sure kids have a healthy and nurturing environment in school. It’s important to build the trust of the students so you can be there in different ways for them. There are a lot of women in schools, so I understand the need to be there especially for the boys, who may need a male role model. Being a coach and giving boys that opportunity to let out their energy, and to confide in me, is a very rewarding aspect of being in this field.

“Now that I’ve graduated, I will be moving to Florida, where most of my family is. From my experience in New York, I know that every school building is different, but I have the skills and the tools in classroom management and fitness techniques to apply anywhere I go. My goal is to teach Phys. Ed. in Florida schools, and I know that having so much experience working with children in public schools under all sorts of constraints makes me more marketable in that I can bring more variety and richness to a school than someone who did not have this kind of training.

“Although two years is a short time to see long term change, I have really noticed some differences in the attitudes and actions of kids, parents, and teachers. I see kids at least thinking about what they’re putting in their bodies at lunch and being more aware of health than they would be otherwise. I’ve been thrilled to see parents coming to workshops and Family Fitness Fun Nights, learning about healthy recipes and active ways to have fun with their kids. My schools are also beginning to implement snack policies and educating parents on what can and cannot be brought into schools. There are so many different pieces that come together to support community-wide change, and I love being part of that change.”

Coach Jason Hadley comes to WITS from Ipswich, England with a lifelong passion for soccer and many years of experience as a youth coach.

“My first year as a WITS Coach and Adelphi Fellow has taught me the broader impact sports-based youth development programs can have on the health and wellness of the entire community. Being integrated in NYC public schools to assist with establishing a wellness and fitness culture, I have developed a deeper understanding of best practices that can reach the parents and families, teachers, and other school staff, and how we can adapt the delivery to best suit the communities and participants involved.

“Moving into my second year, my goals are to build and bridge relationships with communities and schools to develop and to set up a school based program that focuses on getting children to walk, run, or skip a mile a day and improve their physical and mental health! Using my expertise and experience from both in-school coaching and my graduate studies, I want to focus on sustainably training teachers to use fitness activities for the benefit of their students.

“In the future, I plan to continue to be involved with sport not-for-profits and develop sport programs free of charge to enable all children the opportunity to play and be involved in recreation and competitive sports. Having gained knowledge of how to do this through the Adelphi program, and understanding the value of partnerships as a WITS Coach, I envision a  body of partners working together to make these programs more widely accessible and more of a priority in the mainstream.”

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Diving into Design: An Interview with Graphic Designer Susan Fisher Haag

By Joan Chung

Whether it’s the Wellness in the Schools logo, a WITS Lab brochure on kale, or graphics for the Annual Gala, Susan Fisher Haag of juice DESIGN has been the creator and brain behind all of our branding. She has been a part of WITS since the very beginning, and has seen the organization transform from one classroom to four states. Susan ensures that WITS’ brand identity is always in line with the mission, and examines every aspect to make sure all of our material elevates our vision as WITS continues to grow and evolve.

While she currently works in design, Susan originally studied painting through a graduate program at Yale University. Despite knowing very little about design, she got a job at a well-known design firm after graduation. Says Susan, “My intention of working at the firm was mostly to support my artwork, but then I realized I loved design so I decided to pursue that. It seemed like a great way to combine being creative – but also be able to feed myself!”

Susan started her design studio, juice DESIGN, in June of 2002. She’d held a full-time job at a boutique marketing agency, but was laid off. She intended to find another full-time position, but by word of mouth, one project after another kept coming her way. “I soon realized that I thrived in my newfound freedom and flexibility, and the ability to focus on solving client problems in multiple media formats.” She loved the opportunity to work with people, as well as the problem-solving aspect of design. “Every design project has its own unique requirements, such as working around budgets, size, materials, etc. It’s like figuring out a puzzle.” For Susan, it was the perfect chance to use both sides of the brain in combination, to be analytical and creative at the same time. By connecting with a multitude of clients in various industries – nonprofits, finance, the arts, and so forth – juice DESIGN was officially born.

When Nancy Easton co-founded WITS in 2005, a mutual friend reached out and asked if Susan could do some design work for the organization. In true WITS spirit, she dove in and started fashioning the main logo…which has led to her handling all of our design work today.

Says Susan, “There’s a different kind of energy with WITS. It’s very thoughtful, everyone dives in, we get the job done, but we also have fun in the process.” Susan holds the unique position of having been with WITS since the beginning, when 3 moms gathered together with the goal of bringing wellness into schools. “It’s been so interesting seeing this nugget of an idea play out step by step and mile by mile, almost like a marathon training, and seeing how systematically we’ve been able to advance the cause and fulfill the mission in a really expansive way. It’s pretty incredible, and to have been a part of that process has been really amazing and gratifying.”

When asked about the moments that have stood out over the years, Susan points to the galas, especially this year’s, due to its new design challenges. Additionally, she loved working on the cafeteria re-branding at PS 145 last fall. Says Susan, “It was a tiny little budget, but everyone involved really nailed it. It was a true collaborative effort of making it happen somehow.” She loves the organization’s ‘get it done’ attitude – “Nancy doesn’t take no for an answer, it’s always a ‘we can do it!’” – and attributes the working relationships, open communication, and everyone’s willingness to dive in as one of the main reasons WITS has been able to grow and evolve over the years.

Most importantly, her involvement with the organization has given her further insight into the value of nutrition and fitness education. “I’ve always been a pretty healthy person, but WITS has made me see that nutrition and fitness are more than an influence on health – there is a relationship there. It’s also enhanced my appreciation for the value and need for healthy eating options, especially for children. My role at WITS has definitely led me down a path that’s changed my understanding of nutrition and health for the better.”

Thank you so much, Susan! We are all extremely grateful for all the work you do for WITS.

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Bill Telepan’s Pasta with Dairy & Nut Free Pesto & Marinated Cherry Tomatoes

By Bill Telepan

Pasta

8 ounces penne or fusilli pasta

Cook pasta 2 minutes less according to package time. Strain and reserve.

 

Marinated Cherry Tomatoes

2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved vertically (stem to tip)

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon dried leaves

12 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

In a small bowl, toss tomatoes with 1/2 teaspoon salt and let sit 20 minutes to one hour (they will slowly release their juices). Place oregano in a bowl and add 4 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons vinegar, and set aside. When tomatoes are ready, stir in the remaining 8 tablespoons of oil, 4 tablespoons of vinegar, and the oregano mixture.

 

Pesto

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 cups of basil leaves-washed

1 teaspoon minced garlic   

½ cup cooked chickpeas

Place the oil, half of the basil and the garlic in blender and start blending. Add more basil and continue adding a little at a time until all is in the blender and starts to become smooth. Once combined, start adding chickpeas little by little. Blend until smooth, and adjust seasoning with salt. Toss with pasta and cherry tomatoes, and serve.

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