Children on the MEND
Fostering healthy habits in families.
Texas is, unfortunately, doing its part to contribute to the rising obesity epidemic in the United States. “In the state of Texas, adult obesity is a problem,” asserted Missy Quintela, director of the Austin YMCA’s community-based programs. Parents set an example for youth, and this can often mean exposure to unhealthy food choices, such as soda to quench thirst and refined, fatty nfoods as a quick meal or snack. For kids, getting enough physical activity can also be a challenge during the school day; there is often restricted time for school recess, with computer, tablet, or video games winning after school. “Childhood obesity became a big issue for our organization,” Quintela explained. “We hope to eliminate everything that progresses to being an obese adult by getting to everyone sooner. If we can work with children now, we are going to prevent a lot of adult issues, like diabetes, down the road.”
As part of YMCA’s initiative to focus on the needs of the community, a partnership with MEND (the Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it! program) was formed. MEND is rooted in the idea that education is the best way to bring about permanent change. Conceptualized as “a childhood obesity intervention program,” MEND “holistically helps the family, as a unit, find a different approach to familiar, unhealthy habits,” said Quintela, who heads the MEND program initiative for the Austin area.
MEND is in its fifth year of operation in Austin, thanks in large part to continual grants from the St. David’s Foundation, which allow the YMCA to offer the program for free. “[The Foundation] has been so gracious in continuing our grant,” Quintela said appreciatively.
Families are selected to participate in the program according to their “level of readiness to change” and must have at least one child between the ages of 7 and 13 who is above a healthy weight. One parent is required to attend program sessions with the child (though both are welcome), and siblings are encouraged to participate as long as they are open to change and ready to learn.
There is only “we” in the family team approach fostered by MEND. “This program really takes the whole family being on board,” noted Quintela. “The best way to success is having a support system—which is family.” Programs are launched in six locations where there is the most interest and the highest obesity rate, and groups are kept to approximately 15 families per location; keeping the groups small allows for bonding and creating a supportive unit among the participants. Unlike other obesity intervention programs, MEND is unique in that it combines kids with their parents during educational sessions. “Most programs separate children from the learning process because they think children are unable to understand, for example, how sugar affects their body,” said Quintela.
Each two-hour session is comprised of two components: mind (thought and decision-making aspects) and body (physical activity). “[The mind component] helps highlight so much that doesn’t make sense to them,” said Quintela. “It’s not just that ‘I’m an overweight kid that constantly needs to eat.’ It’s that ‘I keep eating chips, and those chips are causing triggers in my body to say I need to eat more.’” During the first hour of each session, participants are taught to be food detectives who make MEND-friendly nutrition choices, like choosing brightly colored fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Reading labels to determine content such as serving size, sugar, and fat is also taught. Then, that knowledge is used in activities: Participants are shown pictures of items (soda, candy bars, cereal) and are asked to identify the number of containers of sugar they believe to be found in each item. “Once we show them that a baby food-sized jar of sugar is actually in one can of soda, it blows them away,” Quintela laughed. “It’s no longer me, Mom, telling you that (food) is bad; it’s us having a conversation about what MEND would say about this food.”
The body component includes an hour of physical activity for the children while the adults form discussion groups to talk about how to make the program work in their respective homes. “This time allows [parents] to find their own path,” Quintela explained. For the children, the hour is full of “fun, physical games that keep the heartbeat rolling and kids engaged” and opportunities to play, learn, and ask questions in a judgment-free environment. “This is a big win for us, because we want them to know that physical activity can be fun,” said Quintela. She recalled a particular MEND graduate who, at the beginning of the program, “was nervous because she couldn’t even stretch to her knees. [But] when a basketball lesson came around, she really opened up.” The young lady went on to join the YMCA basketball team and, eventually, her school team.
The program doesn’t come to a halt at the end of the ten-week period; MEND participants continue to receive support after graduation. “The moment a family starts a program with us, a one year journey is started with the YMCA,” Quintela explained. Although how this support is manifested for each family can vary, free membership to the YMCA, enrollment in youth sport classes, physical check-ins, and access to an online support community are all offered. “This is part of a larger commitment (to the community) to ensuring that youth have healthy paths and options,” Quintela said proudly.