Childhood obesity is a serious national problem. With the waistlines of American children ballooning almost as fast as the subsidized health care bills to pay for the generation ahead of them, first lady Michelle Obama and others have attempted to rescue the country's commitment to youth physical education and healthy eating.
In suburban Boston, a marathoning champion decided to help a high school aide take matters into her own hands, and they found 50 students interested in accepting their challenge: Instead of sitting on the couch, train and run a marathon.
The champion in question is Bill Rogers, arguably the most famous American distance runner of all-time. Rogers, a 63-year-old who won both the Boston and New York Marathons an astounding four times each, responded to a call out from Newton (Mass.) South High special education aide Jamie Chaloff in 2008. Inspired by the same motivation that has driven Mrs. Obama, Chaloff founded the Dreamfar High School Marathon program, hoping to attract a stray high schooler or two and possibly push them into the habit of distance running.
Once Rogers got involved, nine Newton South teens took the challenge, eventually completing the 2008 Providence Marathon. In the two years since the program has taken up, with dozens of students now turning up at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings for long training runs en route to a May 1 date with the 2011 Providence Marathon. The current crop of students includes high schoolers from Newton South, Newton North (Mass.) High, Brookline (Mass.) High and Sharon (Mass.) High.
Yet Chaloff -- who has received encouragement from Paul Epstein, the twin brother of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and a Brookline High social worker, among others -- told the Globe that she thinks the program may just be starting to take off.
"My goal is to get the program in every high school in the state," Chaloff, who is seeking state or local funding to expand, told the Globe. "We have a growth pattern. Add two high schools per year."
Rogers, who said the best part of a recent run was waiting with students who finished around him for their compatriots to arrive, said the program is on to something natural which may help it grow.
"I started running when I was 15. I ran my first marathon at 25. It's a long haul. You have to ease into it," Rogers told runners at a recent Saturday run. "We're born to run. We have huge hearts. You have the strength! It's up [in your mind]. What your mind can conceive your body can achieve. What really matters is that you do your best."
Thanks to Chaloff's initial idea, a resourceful prep sports program has encouraged a whole crop of students to avoid the traps that leave some of their fellow teens with significant health problems later in life.
"Dreamfar," says Epstein, "is heaven-sent."