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Program for obese kids expands to Cook County

by Morgan Kauphusman
Jan 30, 2013

Chicago area children are battling obesity in an after-school program that also brings their parents back to the classroom at local community centers, wellness centers and hospitals.

The newest location at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, the first in Cook County, hosted its first class on Monday.  

ProActive Kids, the not-for-profit foundation that offers the free eight-week sessions to children who qualify, partners with local sponsors to provide community support to kids struggling with their weight. The 4-year-old program is open to children ages 8-14 and began the winter session this week at five locations, including Oak Lawn. Other communities involved with the program include Woodbridge, West Chicago, Wheaton and Downers Grove.

Nicki Klinkhamer, executive director at ProActive Kids, said the next sessions begins in April. Each class location enrolls 20 children. Here’s how the program educates parents and kids alike.

Q. How did you begin partnering with the Advocate Children's Hospital?

A. People come to us. They want to bring our program to their hospital. We have a really good track record. We have a program that's designed to work and so, instead of sometimes building our own, it's easier to partner. When you partner with us you're partnering with other hospitals across Chicago at this point. We're kind of all working on this together so we don't do a lot of business development. We're still fairly young and we're working with just those who come to us at this point. But I believe that our founder met them at some child obesity forum in Chicago and that's how they learned of us.

Q. Does the program vary between locations?

A. No, we have to use the same curriculum pretty much across-the-board to make sure we can measure across-the-board. So if we were to change it would be a different program.

Q. Why do you require a referral from the kids’ primary care doctor?

A. So their doctor knows they're being proactive about their health. The doctors can refer anyone but we actually are the ones who have to determine that they're in the 85th percentile and above. Anybody can enroll and we really don't know until they show up that day if they actually fit our criteria. But the doctors don't get to enroll them. If we say you don't fit our criteria you don't get to stay. We have to maintain a very safe environment for overweight kids. If your kids just don't eat healthy but they're small, or if they have heart disease or whatever else, you know, we're really an intervention program for kids that are struggling with unhealthy weight and we don't really waver from that.

Q. Do you feel that helps foster an accepting environment for kids who are overweight?

A. Oh yes. That's why it has to be that way because if you have a kid that can do all the fitness really well or something like that it makes everybody else feel bad.

Q. What kind of successes are you seeing with this program, meeting three times a week?

A. On average, they decreased their BMI by almost a point, the average BMI drop [for the program.] An average of about 3 percent body fat drop. Increased social indicators and there's a lot that goes into that you can see some of our data on our website. But we're rooting for more self-esteem to take on fitness as a part of lifestyle, that sort of thing. Those are our basic data.

Q. What is the parental interaction like on a weekly basis?

A. They come on Fridays and they do everything with the kids, and then they come every other Wednesday for their own parent only session without the kids.

Q. What goes on in those parent only sessions?

A. We just talk. It's just a discussion about what's going on at home. It's a discussion over the lessons they've learned and really how they're implementing at home, where they're struggling or where they are seeing success.

A. What nutritional lessons are the kids and parents learning?

Q. We're basic, so this is nutrition education. So this isn't diet. This isn't anything like that. Our nutrition is just, as it goes to the eight weeks, it's 'go, slow and woah foods.' We do label readings, portion sizes, breakfast, sugars and sweet tooths, meal planning and that's kind of the curriculum. The nutrition lessons are only on Fridays so it's really kind of getting back to basics. So what they may be eating each day, which is more the 'go foods' and not the 'woah foods,' and how much of them.

Q. Do you find that kids have trouble giving up those sugary drinks?

A. Parents report back that it's something a lot of them didn't even know to do. Ironically they don't know that these drinks have that much sugar in them and that those liquid calories are just adding up. And they do make the changes. They fill the OJ with half water or whatever we recommend. And they do try to switch the sodas or eliminate the sodas. And I do think they find that to be a fairly easy area to cut back on.

Q. Do “go foods, slow foods, and woah foods” apply to everyone in spite of cultural culinary differences?

A. The “go, slow and woah” doesn't change. The portion sizes don't change. None of that should change, technically, across culture. Those three core lessons, no matter what culture you're from, those lessons still need to be adhered to for health.

Q. What sort of activities do you do during the week?

A. We do fitness, nutrition and lifestyle coaching. So Monday and Wednesday when the kids come alone, they do 45 minutes of fitness and 45 minutes of lifestyle, which is the psychological component of the program; the body image, the self-esteem, that sort of thing. And then on Fridays everybody does everything together.  The fitness the lifestyle and that's when we add the nutrition lesson.  It's very equal among the three [components] because we're talking about nutrition also on Mondays and Wednesdays There's just no formal lesson. It's incorporated in the curriculum of both [fitness and lifestyle].

Q. Why is it important to address the lifestyle issue, such as fitness and nutrition?

A. My husband is actually the founder of the program and his motto is you can grow out of the weight but you can't grow out of the psychological damage that's been done to you during that time that you're overweight. So people who are overweight tend to have low self-esteem, low body image, whatever the problem is. And even if they grow out of it, which a lot of these kids probably will, they may incur a lot of damage from a bullying angle. And it's to really combat that. It's a huge part of being overweight, the psychological component.

Q. What can someone first entering the program expect, assuming they make the criteria?

A. Well everything is going to be different based on how they approach the program. A lot of people treat it as just an after-school program. So the parents have to adopt what we tell them to do at home. If they don't, they won't be successful. What can they expect? They can expect us to support them during the eight weeks, to educate them on what they need to be doing. But ultimately, like anything, the own-ness is really on the parents, not necessarily the child. The parent is the one making the food, buying the food, enrolling their children in activities, not the child.

Q. How have you gotten out the word to let parents know this is an option?

A. We market. We do press releases. We work really closely with our hospital partners and their marketing departments to make sure that the doctors know about the program. That's our number one way to market. We really want the hospitals to be announcing it as their program to fight obesity in their own communities. So they really bring us on kind of as their partner to operate the program, but it is their program. And then we just do basic stuff like Facebook advertising. We don't have to do a lot of advertising. If we can get the word out to the doctors, we're doing pretty good.

The spring session, which runs April 15-June 7, is now open for families who want to sign up at


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