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Program to get Sonoma County kids up, out and running returns

Find out more about iDo26.2

To find out more about iDo26.2 or to involve your school, go to https://www.norcalwellbeing.org/community-programs/schools

Valerie Johnson remembers many times throughout last school year when she would ask her third-grade students — their faces framed in tiny Zoom windows on her computer screen — what the rest of their day would look like once class was over.

The answer, for the vast majority, was more screen time.

“I was surprised and saddened at how little exercise they got. And the amount of screen time? I found it really sad,” she said.

To be sure, Johnson understood the problem: A global pandemic.

Parents were under a tremendous amount of pressure, some trying to work from home, others compelled to work outside the house while kids navigated distance learning at home. Safe outlets for kids to get exercise were few.

That is why the veteran Proctor Terrace teacher is ecstatic that iDo26.2 is back up and running. Literally.

“I see a huge need for it,” she said.

iDo26.2 is a volunteer-run program that encourages elementary-aged students across Sonoma County to clock their miles — running is encouraged but walking is OK, too — en route to hopefully completing a marathon by the end of the year.

Launched in 2011, the program has been hampered by wildfires and residual smoke, but schools and teachers hung with it, growing it every year. But the coronavirus pandemic proved too much.

Teachers, students and families were dealing with too many hurdles to put something else on their plates, even if that something else was wholly beneficial. So, the program took a break.

But now it’s back and its return comes just in time. That’s because the largely anecdotal tales of kids’ physical and emotional well-being hitting rock bottom during the pandemic are becoming less so.

Studies are backing up what we have seen with our own eyes.

In Sonoma County, high school kids were getting failing grades at astronomical rates last year. And more than 7 in 10 reported feeling deep anxiety about their futures.

Throughout, kids were largely stagnant. School was on screen and so, too, were much of their social lives. Sports and recreation were hard to come by.

The fallout is real.

U.S. children and teenagers put on a significant amount of weight since the pandemic began, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday.

The biggest jumps? They were found among younger school-aged kids and those who were already prone to obesity, according to the study.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Alyson Goodman, called the findings “substantial and alarming.”

‘They are not robots’

Michelle Leisen, principal at Roseland Elementary School, said some of her first and second graders are only now becoming familiar with what school on an actual campus looks and feels like.

And while the academic loss has been documented, we are only just now beginning to see the physical impact of kids staying home for more than a full school year.

“There are those developmental milestones of running and stopping and playing. It’s definitely different, so it’s getting them back into the groove,” she said. “It’s definitely a huge push this year, for our whole district.”

iDo26.2 is a crucial piece, she said. Roseland Elementary has been an enthusiastic participant in the program since before Leisen took over as principal eight years ago.

But there are pressures. Just see the reports of learning loss. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to get kids back up to speed after a year of distance learning.

Something has to give to get kids out of the classroom and running around, even for just 20 minutes.

“We definitely had a conversation at the school, ‘OK we have to think about the most important thing, ‘What is the most important thing?’ Yes, our literacy goals are still super important, reading to grade level, but … if they are not happy to be at school, if they are not excited to come to school, if they are not making the social connections, they aren’t going to learn,” Leisen said.

To Leisen, running, jumping and playing help kids stay healthy but also help them focus in the classroom.

Johnson agreed. For her, the connection between mind and body is clear.

“They are not robots,” she said. “I feel like a lot of times, people want to shove academics down kids’ brains. They can’t sit that long.”

So Johnson, on a typical day, has three sessions on the blacktop for their iDo26.2 laps. She calls them brain breaks.

“I always tell them we have to go oxygenate their brains,” she said. “Their brains can only be actively engaged for so long.”

And those quiet grumbles early in the year when she told her kids they were headed out to oxygenate their brains? Gone.

Find out more about iDo26.2

To find out more about iDo26.2 or to involve your school, go to https://www.norcalwellbeing.org/community-programs/schools

“Five weeks in, I can really see it,” she said. “It’s like they are in training.”

‘There clearly are benefits’

iDo26.2 clearly filled a need.

The organization, started locally in 2011 with about 1,000 students, grew like crazy. By 2017, they had about 13,000 running and walking regularly. And up until the pandemic, when everyone took a break, not one school had ever dropped out.

Retired family physician Joe Clendenin has largely led the charge of the volunteer-run organization. They seek donations and sponsors to support what Clendenin estimates is the $1-per student cost to run the program.

They get administrative support from The Center for Well-Being in Santa Rosa, but volunteers are at the heart of this program. And hundreds of them are the teachers who get the kids running.

With that in mind, Clendenin knows he has to make the program as hassle-free as possible. He knows teachers are stressed out, he doesn’t want to add to it. In fact, he’s a firm believer that running, getting kids out the door and working up a sweat, can be a stress reliever for both students and teachers.

“Kids that are regularly physically active, there clearly are benefits,” he said. “They are physically better and emotionally better, and they do better in school.”

‘I love running’

When the program started, kids who completed 26.2 miles got a T-shirt. They have moved on to medals. The youngest kids are encouraged to run a half-marathon. Students are given little foot-shaped tokens as they progress toward their goals. Many classrooms have charts tracking their collective progress.

Outside Mrs. Johnson’s room at Proctor Terrace Friday morning, students fill in multiple charts showing how far they have run as a group this year. They are inching closer to five miles.

And something like iDo26.2 can make exercise palatable for those who might not take an immediate liking to running laps.

“We are not asking them to be marathon runners, we are asking them to run a marathon,” Clendenin said.

Third grader Ellie Olvera said she looks at exercise as a time to recalibrate.

“I think just taking a break and calming yourself down and going on a walk makes you feel better, like you get your mind off something,” she said. “It can be with a person, too, if you just want to talk to them. Or, by yourself, that can happen too.”

Exercise helps third grader Raihan Mir feel healthy.

“I love running,” he said. “It makes me feel like my blood is flowing.”

Mir’s running partner Friday morning, fellow third grader Atlas Yang, offers a thought: “The energy is out of me and I can learn better.”

Depth of need

For longtime volunteer Jeff Miller, a retired pediatrician, the pandemic has proven the deep need for a program like iDo26.2. The rate at which schools have come back on board after the layoff points to its value, he said.

“I’m very encouraged that we are back up to something like two-thirds or three-quarters of schools involved, even at a time when schools are under tremendous pressure,” he said.

“I think it speaks to the value of the program to see people hanging onto it even at a difficult time.”

It speaks both to the value of the program, as well as the depth of the need.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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