Off and Running
Go FIT Foundation Provides Youths, Women with An Exercise in Healthy Lifestyles
Susan Jaye-Kaplan knows what its like to be underprivileged. Orphaned at an early age, she lived with various relatives in Boston, and was on her own and on the streets before graduating from high school.
I knew what it was like to not have a roof over my head and not know where the next meal was going to come from, she told BusinessWest, adding that she was essentially going nowhere, and fast, until a mentor stepped into her life.
His name was Lippman Hart Geronimus. He was a bacteriologist at Beth Israel Hospital, and he came across Jaye-Kaplan as she walked around various offices and labs looking for a summer job.He found something for me to do, she said, adding that his help went well beyond a paycheck.
He made me say the same thing every day that I can do anything and be anything I want to be as long as I remain focused, hard-working, challenged, and honest.
Inspired by her own good fortune and how it was shaped by someone who gave her guidance and direction and helped her believe in herself, Jaye-Kaplan has dedicated much of her adult life to providing similar opportunities for others. A year ago, she and her husband founded the Go FIT Foundation, which provides health and fitness opportunities to economically underprivileged and underserved youth and women in inner city and rural settings.
The foundation conducts six-week programs designed to stress the benefits of walking and running. But its overall mission is to go much further.
Indeed, Go FIT is about more than helping an increasingly overweight population of young people and women learn about diet and exercise, said Jaye-Kaplan.
It also exists to provide guidance, show children that others care about them, and convince these young people that they should care about (and take care of) themselves.
The foundation has conducted 12 programs to date, at sites ranging from YMCAs to area inner-city schools to the Mass. Career Development Institute, and has received requests for dozens more. The early success of programs conducted in the Pioneer Valley, coupled with exposure in publications such as New England Runner and Runners World, has prompted requests for programs from across the state and, more recently, other areas of the country.
Taking Go FIT from a local to a regional and then national (and perhaps international) initiative is inevitable, said Jaye- Kaplan, noting quickly that she and the groups board of directors will move carefully as they consider expansion.
Like the young people involved in the Go FIT programs, the groups leaders will walk before they run.
Step by Step
Jaye-Kaplan doesnt hide her frustration as she talks about the overall fitness and athletic abilities of the youths she sees at Go FIT programs or the distinct lack thereof.
When they start the six-week programs, she said, participants do 30 minutes of walking and running in repetitions involving four minutes of walking followed by one minute of running and more than half simply are not up to it.
The poor conditioning is attributable to a number of factors, she said, including everything from improper diet to the influence of video games to the fact that parents living in many inner-city neighborhoods will not let their children out to play because the streets and parks (what few exist) are too dangerous.
Participation in a Go FIT program will not change a childs physique, weight, or endurance level, said Jaye-Kaplan. Six weeks will not change who they are today, but the hope is that their perception of who they are for themselves will change.
Were hopeful that we can change the way young people perceive what they can and cant do for wellness and life, she continued.
If they can look at one less day of television and one less day of fast food … if we can change the perception of what theyre capable of doing in their own minds, thats truly the beginning of what can happen for the rest of their lives.
This was Jaye-Kaplans vision when she and other members of the Pioneer Valley Womens Running Club, which she formed, started a ‘Walk to Run program that engaged area youths in programs stressing exercise and nutrition.
Conducted in conjunction with groups such as Girls Inc. in Holyoke and area YMCAs, the ‘Walk to Run programs used running as a way to get young people thinking about the long-term benefits of exercise and healthy eating habits for both the body and mind, she explained.
The running club was not in a position to expand ‘Walk to Run, said Jaye- Kaplan, so she and her husband created the Go FIT Foundation to carry on the mission and take it to a higher level.
The group received more than 80 requests for programs in its first year, she said, and it conducted as many as time and resources would allow. The sessions are carefully prepared, she explained, adding that there is a lengthy training regimen for mentors prior to each program. Each days session begins with a meeting in a friendship circle, she said, adding that there are speakers on subjects ranging from nutrition to dental hygiene, as well as exercise routines. Participants log their activities and their thoughts about them in Go FIT journals.
Students are given sneakers and Tshirts, said Jaye-Kaplan, but, ultimately, they take something more valuable with them come programs end appreciation of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
Programs generally cost about $5,000, which covers clothing and footwear for participants and other expenses, said Kaplan, noting that corporate sponsors have helped offset those costs.
Incorporated last January, Go FIT has exploded onto the local health and education scene, picking up major corporate sponsors, energetic and community-minded board members, and considerable momentum along the way.
Carol Leary, president of Bay Path College and one of those board members, told BusinessWest that she became involved because she believes in Go FITs mission of both educating and mentoring young people and women.
The college has taken part in a number of the groups initiatives, she said, including a program for students of Springfields Beal School that took part on the campus, and a nutrition program designed to help Bay Path students make smart nutrition decisions.
These students are enjoying real independence, usually for the first time in their lives, she said. They can eat whatever they want; we want them to make smart, informed decisions about nutrition.
Leary said she has been inspired not only by GoFITs mission, but by Jaye- Kaplans energetic, imaginative approach to carrying it out.
By that, she meant the creation of what she called ‘concentric circles. Touch one person, and they are educated in a new way of thinking or a new way of behaving, he explained, then they will touch another person. And thats the brilliance of this program.
Those individuals who go through the program … their lives will be changed forever; they will always think about what they eat and about the value of exercise, she continued. And they will hopefully then touch another person their own child, a brother, a sister, a mother, a father who will hopefully be touched by the Go FIT philosophy.
Other area colleges and businesses have been similarly inspired. The list of sponsors and supporters includes Springfield College and Western New England College, Big Y, Reebok, Lenox American Saw, Health New England, Baystate Health, Spalding, and others.
Looking forward, Jaye-Kaplan said Go FITs early success and its strong base of support should enable it to expand its reach well beyond the Pioneer Valley. Already, the Boston Parks & Recreation Dept. has made inquiries about scheduling programs for dozens of sites, and Jaye-Kaplan anticipates handling that assignment in 2007.
Were getting calls from Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, all over, she said. Its gratifying but also a little overwhelming. Were going to expand at a workable pace; we want to get all our ducks in a row.
The Finish Line
Jaye-Kaplan told Business West that many young people cry when their sixweek Go FIT programs end and she often gets teary eyed herself. Thats because she views those final sessions not as the end of something, but rather a continuation (hopefully) of a new and different outlook on health, fitness and life.
As she said, she cant take an obese child and make her fit and trim in a month and a half. But she can lay the foundation for a healthier life, and that is her ultimate mission. And shes going to take it take one child, and one step, at a time.
George OBrien can be reached at[email protected]