What started with an unconventional collaboration between the Jasper School District, the National Park Service (Buffalo National River), the National Forest Service (Ozark National Forest), Newton County Hometown Health Improvement and Healthy Kids Healthy Ozarks has grown into a health initiative with creative approaches to address childhood obesity in a rural, impoverished area.
Healthy Incentives for Kids Enrichment (HIKE!) is a school and community-based partnership that uses technology, innovation and shared resources to get youth engaged in outdoor opportunities that increase interest in and access to physical activity.
With 39.2% of students in the Jasper School District either overweight or obese and 34.7% reporting “having no exercise in the past 30 days,” the partnership stepped in to get kids active and outside. With support from Healthy Kids Healthy Ozarks, a program of the North Arkansas Partnership for Health Education (NAPHE), community partners worked together to form the HIKE! group. The goal is to increase kids’ and teens’ awareness and usage of trails while taking advantage of the beautiful natural amenities of the region.
This effort, however, came with certain environmental challenges unique to the area. For starters, the Jasper School District has three school campuses covering more than 600 square miles. It is not unusual for a child to have a two-hour bus ride to and from school every day. Along with rugged terrain and most parents either farming or commuting for work, the population struggles with limited transportation accessibility and few economic opportunities.
Healthy Kids Healthy Ozarks was able to utilize key partnerships to eliminate barriers and provide resources critical to HIKE!’s mission. By partnering with the schools, the group is able to use their busses and staff to make HIKE! opportunities available to all. The schools have even begun to incorporate more health education and activities into the curriculum. Additionally, there are many learning opportunities like nature photography and outdoor cooking lessons, led by professionals and volunteers from the community. Students are learning to take their natural talents and interests and apply them to outdoor activities.
The HIKE! initiative currently has active out-of-school hiking groups at three different school campuses. Through after-school and weekend field trips, the group learns about trail maintenance, outdoor art, plant species and other topics while participating in a variety of hiking, canoeing and biking experiences. To generate interest and increase communication within the group, members use a web-based social networking system to explore trail profiles with detailed maps, tips and ratings of difficulty levels. They can also use the web-based system to log the miles they have hiked and share their hiking experiences.
HIKE! promotes total health, including regular physical activity and eating nutritious foods to support those activities. Project Coordinator Cindy Miller says, “There is always a teaching moment for how health of the body relates to health of the environment.” With the beautiful backdrop of the Ozark National Forest and Buffalo National River, HIKE! members participate in outdoor activities, learn new skills, make connections and share experiences to improve their overall health and well-being.
Miller maintains that collaboration has been the biggest key to the success of the initiative by bringing together a diverse mix of people and organizations in the planning process. She says, “We have gained momentum by joining forces with partners that have historically never worked together. It is amazing to see everyone at the same table discussing a common issue that affects us all, and that issue is health.”