P3R Enriches Students' Health with Project R.U.N.
Black bean burgers are on the menu at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville. The chefs behind the creation? Fifth and sixth grade students.
They are members of Project R.U.N. (Reaching Underserved Neighborhoods), a division of P3R’s Kids of STEEL program, which helps children lead healthier lifestyles. With weekly cooking classes and physical activities after school, the Project R.U.N. participants learn the tools to continue eating right and exercising regularly even after the sessions end. “We want to install lifelong, healthy habits with the kids,” explains Nick Fischer, RD, LDN, event and program dietician at P3R. “Making it not feel like a chore, but like something you enjoy.”
To add to the excitement of Kids of STEEL and Project R.U.N., its participants can say they’ve completed a full marathon at the completion of the program. Clocking in 25.2 miles throughout the months leading up to the DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon weekend, either by running or playing aerobic sports like soccer and basketball, the programs culminate with the one-mile Toyota Pittsburgh Kids Marathon. The sense of accomplishment felt when they reach that incredible 26.2 mark coupled with the comfort of having P3R cover the cost of admission and transportation to the North Shore race make it an overall positive experience for the entire family.
Since 2014, Project R.U.N. has provided life-changing opportunities for students at nine different sites across the Pittsburgh area who may not have access to the nutrition programs or training opportunities otherwise. “They become stronger, they become better, and they become better people,” says Stewart Jones, youth outreach coordinator/coach at P3R. “We want everyone being nice and encouraging other people, and that’s what I see in these kids.”
The impact Project R.U.N. has made on local communities contributes to Kids of STEEL’s success over the last five years. Nearly 16,000 children already know the benefits it brings, and the reach will be able to expand and improve in years to come, as Kids of STEEL won the 2015 Youth Program of the Year award during the 2016 Running USA Industry Conference in Los Angeles.
Along with the recognition, P3R received a $10,000 grant, which will be used to expand Project R.U.N. sites. “We’ve always been trying to answer the question: ‘How do you get more parental involvement?’ This year, because we have extra funding, we’ve been able to do cooking lessons with parents where they actually get to eat,” Fischer says. “If we can get them to come see us, we can make some big strides there and really help bridge the gap [between the program and home.]”
It all starts in the school’s kitchen, where students get a brief nutrition lesson and a healthy recipe to test out and take home for future meals with their families. On the day of our visit, five boys crowd around a table with Fischer, carefully following the recipe, not-so-carefully mashing the ingredients together, and forming semi-perfect patties to be fried up on the stovetop. As the plate of cooked burgers begins to fill up, Fischer sends the group down to join their classmates and fellow members of Project R.U.N. who are playing soccer in the gym downstairs with Jones and Site Coordinator John Leemhuis, who is the physical education teacher at Arsenal Middle School.
The two lead the group in physical activities to supplement Fischer’s nutrition aspect. “My job is to make sure the kids have a good time and that they learn that they can do this when they get older,” Jones says. “I try to show them that it’s cool to work out, to be an athlete, to be active, and to be nice to other people. That’s what we’re all about— positivity, being healthy, and learning how to do whatever you want to do, as long as it’s healthy.”
As the intense pickup game comes to an end, Leemhuis blows the whistle and brings the players to a stop. Right on cue, Fischer and Becky Ocel, who is interning with the program, burst through the gym doors with the black bean burgers from upstairs. We barely have a chance to step out of the way before the students swarm around the two like a tornado, leaving only empty trays and a few crumbs on the floor moments later.
Before they climb on the bus to head home, the students mingle with their leaders, shedding light on the friendship and trust that’s developed already. Fischer says the children, especially the four- and five-year-olds, are always leery at the program’s start. But once they get a grasp on the benefits they’re getting from Project R.U.N. and realize it’s all done with a fun attitude, they come out of their shells and embrace every lesson with full force.
“My favorite part is seeing the kids grow,” Jones says. “At first, everyone’s really quiet. Then, their confidence starts to go up. Their toughness to be able to try their best and not give up starts to develop. I mean, we work on increasing their endurance, but their resilience is the biggest thing I can see. Life can get hard sometimes. If they learn how to try their best and be their best and have faith in themselves, they can overcome anything.”