School Environment Key to Healthy Children and Grown-ups

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on October 13, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

Our kids spend most of their day at school, many of them eat two meals there, leaving home when it’s still dark and returning in the late afternoon. If we want them to be healthy, thriving individuals that grow up to become independent, productive adults, our school environments must allow and even encourage them to be physically active and eat healthy food, in addition to increasing their skills and knowledge. After all, this generation of youth is expected to have a shorter life-span than their parents, almost entirely due to their increasing overweight and obesity driven by their sedentary lifestyles and poor food choices.

‘Schools can’t do everything,’ you might say. But at least they should not contribute to the problem of unhealthy kids by not allowing them time to move and play and stretch the way their bodies are designed. Or by offering them high calorie food and snacks with little nutritional value.

This is where the CATCH program comes in. CATCH stands for a Coordinated Approach To Child Health and is an evidence-based, coordinated school health program designed to promote physical activity, healthy food choices and the prevention of tobacco use in children. The CATCH programs cover kids from preschool through 8th grade and have been implemented in thousands of schools and after-school organizations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. According to the program website, “CATCH employs a holistic approach to child health promotion by targeting multiple aspects of the school environment and involves classroom teachers, Child Nutrition Services, PE teachers, students and their families…in a wide range of health-promoting activities for all children.”

CATCH came to several districts in the Rio Grande Valley about 10 years ago. Some schools have embraced the program and allowed it to hugely impact the culture and atmosphere among staff, students and parents. Ortiz Elementary school in Brownsville is one of those “CATCH schools” that is committed to providing a healthy environment for its children. The program has been championed by an enthusiastic physical education teacher, Yolanda Cortinas, who has spearheaded CATCH efforts since its inception in Brownsville.

In fact the University of Texas CATCH Team recently selected Yolanda Cortinas as a CATCH Champion of 2013.  Peter Cribb, national CATCH Program Director shares, “Cortinas is being recognized for her untiring dedication to create healthy environments for the children in Texas.  She has provided outstanding leadership and tireless effort in the fight against childhood obesity. Cortinas has created a culture of expectations, and inspired countless others.”

“On December 5th, 2013 at 6:00pm at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, we will recognize seven CATCH Champions at the school, district, and community level from across the state. Cortinas is one of them.”

Cortinas is a quiet, unassuming person who motivates through her obvious commitment to the kids and parents and by creating opportunities for them to move, run, dance and make healthy choices. The school’s principal Melissa Weibiski says, “Ms. Cortinas has been instrumental in keeping our students and parents physically fit as well as keeping them informed on healthy choices and its benefits. She has most definitely cultivated a love of running, physical activity, health, nutrition and community involvement!”

What is Cortinas most proud of about her CATCH efforts? “I really see kids motivated who weren’t before! They don’t have to be athletes but they enjoy running and now I love that I see some of my former students who are in high school running around the neighborhood, or on the cross-country team. I’m most proud of our running club, and our Marathon Kids program, and seeing how parents even become involved and show up early before school to walk or run some laps with the kids.”

Weibiski adds, “Cortinas has created a two-week fitness summer camp for kids to come and stay active at school. They get weighed-in and dance and move. She created a monthly CATCH healthy snack program with the cafeteria where parents and kids come and learn to make healthy snacks, and she leads the most successful elementary running club in the area, with hundreds of her students attending fun runs and 5ks!”

Cortinas says she hopes more than anything that the experiences her kids have stay with them for a lifetime of fitness and health, because “Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!” (Your Health Matters!)

For more information about CATCH go to: