Posted October 15, 2009

When international velodrome cycling champion Stephen Alfred was growing up in Trinidad, just about every kid rode a bicycle. So when he arrived in the Pajaro Valley four years ago, he was surprised to learn that most children didn’t own bikes and many couldn’t ride one.

He set out to change that, teaching cycling to thousands of Watsonville area students through a Pajaro Valley Unified School District after-school program called Fitness 4 Life.

The five-year-old program, which combines physical activity with nutrition education to fight an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, has earned Pajaro Valley the title 2009 Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport Central Coast Region School District of the Year.

“It’s very rewarding for me, when I come to a school and work with two or three kids and see them ride by themselves with a big smile on their faces,” Alfred said.

Monday, there were lots of smiles as close to 20 seventh-graders circled a ball field at Cesar Chavez Middle School, learning to brake and switch gears on the program’s mountain bikes. But Fitness 4 Life is about more than having a good time.

A 2005 study by the California Center for Public Health Policy found 36 percent of Pajaro Valley fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders were obese, compared to 24 percent of Santa Cruz County students. And as obesity rates climb, so does the risk of diabetes and other health problems.

The after-school program is about changing lives, said Jen Bruno, Fitness for Life coordinator.

Students who stay after school spend an hour getting help with academics as part of a larger enrichment and intervention program, then an hour in Fitness 4 Life, where in addition to cycling, they have the opportunity to swim, dance, play soccer and take cooking and nutrition classes.

At Cesar Chavez, about a third of the nearly 600 students participate. Districtwide, 22 schools and about 6,000 students are taking part this year, including 35 high-schoolers who are trained as assistant teachers and work either on a volunteer basis to earn community service hours or are paid minimum wage.

Joe Trautwein, director of extended learning and student services, worries about sustaining the program, however. The entire after-school program costs about $7 million annually, funded mostly by state and federal grants. But the fitness program has relied on a grant from the S.H. Cowell Foundation, which has provided an average of $200,000 annually for the past five years. That grant may be ending this year.

Trautwein is hoping Cowell will continue to provide funding and he’s hoping to find other financing sources as well.

“It’s a big expensive program, and we need help to make it work,” Trautwein said.

Oct 6

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Copyright © 2009, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

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