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COLUMBIA — Nakita Cade, 16, led an unsuspecting group of kids in a game of Red Light, Green Light — then, just when they weren't looking, she pelted them with brightly colored water balloons.
The kids ran around, unknowingly burning off calories while grabbing their own water balloons and soaking Cade and her friends in playful revenge. This past summer, Cade and other Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods youth advocates joined the fight against childhood obesity by hosting a water day designed to teach kids about healthy living.
“The kids can’t go to the grocery store and buy healthy things,” Cade said. “The parents have to buy the foods, and sometimes parents don’t always buy foods that are good for their children.”
In 2008, PedNet Coalition received a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As part of the initiative, Unite 4 for Healthy Neighborhoods was formed to address obesity in Columbia. Teaching teenagers how to advocate healthier lifestyles has emerged as one of the goals, along with ideas such as planting fruit trees in public places, improving public transportation and establishing a food policy council.
Led by Melissa Maras, a professor at the MU department of educational, school and counseling psychology, the Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods teenagers spent that summer afternoon teaching kids about staying active and healthy eating.
Since then, the group has learned what it means to advocate a cause.
“I think the great thing about working with young people is that they can see things in a way that we can’t as soon as we’re not young people,” Maras said. “We get old, and we lose that perspective.”
The teenagers invited dancers to perform as a way to illustrate new ways of exercise. College students led a game where their young guests had to answer nutrition questions and do silly dances, hula-hoop or jump rope. The whole group feasted on fresh snacks prepared by Cade and her friends.
The goal was to keep everyone’s minds open and bodies active.
“There’s so many unhealthy kids,” Cade said. “You’ll see them drinking water and eating Cheez-Its and a cookie for lunch. Teenagers. Well, I just don’t know what you’re going to do with us.”
The long-term goal is for the teenagers to embrace leadership roles and campaign for healthy lifestyles. Maras hopes to eventually establish a way for youths to be connected to the Columbia City Council.
In the coming year, the teens will use a program called PhotoVoice to illustrate how they perceive obesity and unhealthy living, by taking photos and making them available to the community.
“All young people need is assistance in really figuring out what it looks like to advocate,” Maras said. “For a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old, everything is in the here and now. Being able to fast-forward and say, 'I want to live beyond 60,' is tough.”
The program is still in its early stages. It's small, but Cade looks forward to becoming a part of something that she hopes will keep growing.
“They have great ideas, and they’ll tell us what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong,” Maras said. “It’s just so much better with them. I don’t think we could do it without them.”
With encouragement from parents, her boss and the advocacy group, Cade’s making nutrition a significant part of her life.
“I’ve changed my eating habits,” she said. “I’ve started taking vitamins, and I work out more. I went from having horrible asthma to basically being cured of asthma. It really helps.”
For Cade, exercise doesn’t have to be grueling. She's more than happy to walk the mall, looking through shops and burning calories as she goes.
These youths aren’t the only ones raising awareness.
Verna Laboy advocates old-fashioned way of going door to door, passing out fliers and talking with people face to face.
“It’s really easy to pass it off and let someone else deal with it,” she said. “It’s hard to make it go away when I’m standing in your face.”
Like Maras and Cade, Laboy is a part of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods. The youth advocacy group and the neighborhood association are designed to begin community conversations. Once established, these associations serve as key resources for community members to become involved in their communities and gain access to a wealth of information on existing programs.
“When you get a forum together, you’ll be able to discuss healthier lifestyle choices and ways we can do that right here in our community — getting people active and getting families out there active while connecting to wonderful resources right here in our neighborhood,” Laboy said.
Laboy said not enough people know the extent of the nutritional resources available.
“We can’t make there be an interest,” she said. “Sometimes people just need to be made aware. That’s how we’re going to do it, the old-fashioned way, by knocking on doors.”
The First Ward will be a focus, Laboy said. “It’s the center of the community and the heart of the community. It’s real easy for those people to disenfranchise themselves by not being involved.”
Laboy plans to first establish a neighborhood association around Worley Street Park, which she hopes will pull people out of their homes and into the fresh air.
“That’s my fantasy and my dream to get families to the park,” Laboy said.
Bill Cantin with the city's Office of Neighborhood Services and a member of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods acknowledged that a void of neighborhood activism lies in an area bordered by McBaine Avenue on the east, West Boulevard on the west, Business Loop 70 on the north and Worley Street on the south.
Ideally, Cantin thinks Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods could help revitalize older associations that have become less active over the years. "We don’t want to draw boundaries for anyone, but the intent is to get people involved,” he said.
Eventually, Laboy wants the associations to challenge the Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation to bring more gardening and exercise activities to the park and reinstate Police Department attendance at neighborhood association meetings.
“I don’t want to dictate to the neighborhoods what their priorities will be,” Cantin said. “Ultimately, it will be up to the neighborhoods to decide what they want to take on.”