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Students at Timbuktu Academy learn how to build a healthy community


Becky Burton (Aka Mama Bey), a 3rd grade teacher with Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology, witnesses some pretty unhealthy student behavior daily. What bothers her most is seeing kids dropped off in the early morning with a “breakfast” of hot chips and a liter pop.

It happens frequently. Children walk in with Red 40 stained fingers (the dye commonly used in these snacks). Although the chips are usually confiscated until the end of the day, it’s still an uphill battle.

“The biggest challenge is the hot chips, big pop and candy,” Burton says.

Becky Burton and some of her students

Becky Burton and some of her students

This also is a personal challenge for her, and not because of extra spicy snacks. She is changing her eating habits as well.

“I have ongoing chronic asthma, and I didn’t get it until I was 20-something,” she says. “I knew it was what I was eating, and I knew it was because I wasn’t exercising.”

So, this year she vowed to pay closer attention to her health. It would also require a more conscious approach. More importantly, perhaps, it wouldn’t be a journey of one. She would include, and inspire, her students to join her.

They needed a program that would fit their needs. Late in the school year (May 12), Timbuktu received a determination from Building Healthy Communities, which awarded them $20,000 worth of gym equipment, a Recess Cart, and a program that includes healthy lesson plans.

Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a program originally founded by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) in 2009, provides grants for schools to improve their environment by encouraging healthy eating habits and physical activity. A recess equipment cart is also provided.

“I have a vested interest in (Building Healthy Communities),” Burton says. “I’m in it to win it, just like the kids. I’m trying to eat better so my asthma can go away. A lot of the illnesses we have is because of what we eat and (lack of) physical activity. Even if it doesn’t go away, I can control it better if I’m eating better and exercising.”

She took the lead on researching how to secure the grant for the school.

“We decided to close our school store because we weren’t selling healthy snacks,” Burton says. “We said, ‘What can we do differently?’ This literally dropped into our laps. We jumped on it and saw it as a way to find resources to provide students with healthier choices besides hot chips, big pops and candy. We had to change how we provided those snacks.”

According to Burton, the biggest barrier for any schoolteacher or staff member is time. Thankfully, the students are pitching in.

“The kids love the recess equipment, they’re taking care of it,” Burton says. “I see (the program) being pretty successful and hopefully sustainable. That may be the biggest thing once we step outside this year. After this initial push how can we keep it going? We just need to make sure it’s in place by the end of the year.”

Cha-Rhonda Edgerson, Timbuktu’s principal, and a student

Cha-Rhonda Edgerson, Timbuktu’s principal, and a student

Cha-Rhonda Edgerson, Timbuktu’s principal for four years, is onboard. She started as a teacher 17 years ago and knows the school culture pretty well. Still, she hadn’t heard about BHC.

“Mama Becky brought it up to me,” Edgerson says. “We don’t have gym every day, so that was a concern. We looked at the grant and thought it would be beneficial to Timbuktu students. Nutrition education for all of the students.”

Like Burton, this program is personal for her as well.

“I’m a diabetic,” Edgerson says. “It took me becoming a diabetic to start looking at the nutrition of the foods that I’m putting in my body, trying to eliminate certain foods. Knowing what my triggers are. For people to do it prior to having this type of program in the school, benefits the whole school community, it adds to the culture.”

This is a school-wide effort, so Edgerson expects it to have a real impact on families.

“That’s the biggest thing for me,” she says. “What we have found is what students learn, they take it home. There are so many students who are suffering from obesity. We’ve done the self-esteem workshops, but this is kind of preventative.”

Editor’s Note: Building Healthy Communities, a program originally founded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) in 2009, continues to evolve and has since garnered added support from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Fitness Foundation, United Dairy Industry of Michigan, University of Michigan and Wayne State University’s Center for School Health.

Photos: Paul Engstrom

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