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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Reflecting On A Year of Progress in Trenton

By Anwar Rasheed, WITS Chef

We recently held our first WITS BITS series at Columbus Elementary School, and with the help and participation of the school community it was a rousing success. WITS BITS are simple, 20-minute lessons created by Wellness in the Schools that use hands-on demonstrations to emphasize basic nutrition concepts. For this session, we discussed black beans as a protein and a vegetable.

Before the students arrived, I had prepared a black bean dip. At the end of the lesson, students received a pita chip to dip and eat, and they also got to hold and smell cilantro, which was one of the dip’s ingredients. This was a great way to engage the students interactively.

Chef Anwar interacts with Columbus Elementary School students during WITS BITS.

The enthusiasm from students and faculty was amazing. Having a hands-on leader like Principal Dewar Wood and a faculty willing to give 100% participation and always makes the process of promoting and executing our programming easier. Ms. Wood is my go-to person at Columbus, and she did an incredible job making everyone aware of and excited about the WITS BITS programming.

Seeing the students and teachers enthusiastically march into the cafeteria for the lesson and give thumbs up all around at the conclusion reminded me that our work with Ready, Set, Healthy! is taking hold. While there’s still much more work to accomplish, it’s humbling to reflect as I near the end of my first year with the RSH collective in Trenton and see our mission beginning to come to life. The students and the staff have a hunger and a thirst for what’s going on. They have a genuine interest in wellness. They’re curious about scratch-cooking and how it can be executed in school as well as at home.

Trenton students cut peppers during WITS Chili Labs in March 2018.

Wellness committees are becoming part of the community in our four Trenton schools. At WITS, we see wellness committees as one of the most crucial aspects of a school becoming healthier and more self-sufficient. Their formation and success is a sign that community stakeholders are becoming invested in changing the culture of their school. As the WITS Chef it’s important for me to practice wellness as an example for everyone. But even more essential is seeing members of the community, like the school cooks, take on leadership in these wellness committees and become role models themselves.

Our work continues to move forward. Although at times the progress can feel slow, these schools — the students, the parents, the faculty and staff – have great acceptance and enthusiasm for our mission, and the results have been inspiring.

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.