Students find strength in numbers

Elementary school's popular club teaches healthy habits, discipline

March 29, 2011 

  • Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts is accepting exercise equipment and monetary donations for the Strength Summed Up Team.

    Details: Principal Gretchen Keefner, 843-342-4101

A new program at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts has helped kids strengthen more than just their muscles.

In August, physical education teacher Jackie Wheeler invited 75 first- through fifth-grade students to join the Strength Summed Up Team, a strength and conditioning club. She said she couldn't include every student in the school so she chose a diverse bunch of kids with varying backgrounds and body types. Although the purpose of the team was originally to encourage students to be healthy, it has also taught them discipline and helped build their self-esteem.

The team meets before school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to work out, using static stretch bands, medicine balls, power bars (weighted barbells) and light dumbbells. The children have learned about body mass index and waist-hip ratio.

They've also learned about the dangers of being overweight. The students are weighed and measured once a month. They keep track of their weight, height and body mass index number throughout the year.

"I'm just trying to educate them so as they grow older, they're more aware (of the importance of these numbers)," Wheeler said.

She said when the club first started, many kids didn't want to get on the scale. But she has explained to them that the weight isn't as important as their measurements. She said she keeps things positive and now the kids are so comfortable they jump right on the scale.

Wheeler said what began as a before-school club has grown into a community project. Physical therapists, chefs and other professionals have volunteered their time to help the children learn to exercise and eat properly. Dennis Ittenbach of Island Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation has worked with the kids on spine-correct postures and exercises. Chefs with the SERG Restaurant Group, including Glenn Keller of Frankie Bones, have spent time teaching the young students about nutrition. And parents have spent hours helping Wheeler run the club.

"I think this year is the first time in six years that I feel like we have a comprehensive, healthy plan in the school," principal Gretchen Keefner said. "It has been so positive."

Improved health isn't the club's only benefit. Wheeler said some of the kids in the group didn't have the best behavior or grades before being a part of the team. Because of Wheeler's strict rules, about 30 kids have learned the hard way and gotten kicked off the team. But others have straightened up to stay on the team and have benefited from the discipline.

Vilma Caban said the program has immensely helped her son, Joey. His eating habits have improved, he's more active and has more confidence. She said he couldn't believe the applause he and his teammates got at a recent school performance.

"It's just been really good for his self-esteem," Vilma said.

The group members have shown off their moves on a few occasions to fellow students. On March 18 they demonstrated the proper technique for lifting weights. The team used detergent bottles, tissue boxes and other household items to show other kids how to get in shape without expensive equipment.

Wheeler said she's gotten a lot of interest from kids who hope to join next school year when enrollment opens again. She's turned away about 100 students since starting the program.

Why is the strength team so popular when it involves so much hard work and discipline? Wheeler doesn't really know the answer, but she thinks the kids like the challenge.

"I have high expectations, and they rise to those expectations," she said about her students. "I think they know that I expect them to be top notch. They know I believe in them."

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