Diabetes Forecast

School Walk for Diabetes Raises Awareness

Event Promotes Nutrition and Fitness in Youngsters

By Kelly Toves , ,

On a trip to the grocery store with her 4-year-old son, Marni Baggett got one of her first opportunities to talk to others about diabetes. A couple of shoppers were impressed when they saw her son, Andrew, staring intently at a nutrition label. "Oh, look, he's reading!" one of them told Baggett. She replied that her son had to; he had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Now 11 years old, Andrew continues to take charge of his diabetes, counting carbs and making healthy eating choices. His focus on nutrition rubbed off on classmates at Pomperaug Elementary School in Southbury, Conn., from which he graduated in June. The emphasis on healthy living has become a school priority, particularly when it's time for School Walk for Diabetes, an annual fund-raiser for the American Diabetes Association's research, education, and advocacy programs.

Pomperaug began hosting School Walk six years ago. Sue Catuccio, physical education teacher and School Walk coordinator, says the fund-raiser coincides with a health unit on nutrition and fitness in which students learn about smart snack options and are encouraged to bring in healthy lunches. As one of three students in the school with diabetes, Andrew served as a student ambassador for the event, leading the walk and putting a face on a disease that many students were unfamiliar with.

Andrew Baggett, 11, joins Jesse Rebar, a physical education teacher, during the 2009 School Walk for Diabetes.
Photograph courtesy of Marni Baggett

When Andrew started at Pomperaug, a year after he was diagnosed, his mom met with teachers and nurses and spoke with Andrew's classmates. From kindergarten through third grade, she visited classrooms at the beginning of each school year and explained diabetes in a way children could understand. She said that Andrew's pancreas didn't work well, so he needed help from his insulin pump, just as she needed glasses to help her see well. She showed students how Andrew's pump worked and the sounds it would make. When Andrew reached fourth grade, he told her she could stop coming in; by then, Pomperaug students were no strangers to diabetes.

If not for events like School Walk, Baggett says, children would probably know next to nothing about their peers who are living with type 1. "School Walk makes [diabetes] not such a foreign thing to them," adds Baggett, 41, a bookkeeper. Andrew says he wants his classmates to walk away from the event every year knowing more about the disease. So when they ask him how it feels to have diabetes and what he can and cannot eat, he is happy to answer. He tells them you can eat anything with diabetes, but you need to balance and keep track of what you're eating. "I want them to know that [diabetes is not contagious and] you can't transmit it," he says. "Diabetes is not bad, as long as you treat it properly"

At Pomperaug's School Walk in April, fourth and fifth graders followed a course around the field at the back of the school. (Students in first through third grades walked earlier in the week in gym class.) Members of one team spray-painted their hair red and green and sported blue tie-dyed shirts that read "Stylin' Striders." Another team highlighted healthy eating by dressing up as carrots, complete with homemade carrot-top hats. The kids competed for honors like best banner and most class spirit. Their banners showcased diet- and health-related information that they had learned in health class. "The kids work really hard," says Jen Nielson, associate director of the local ADA office in Rocky Hill, Conn. "All the events are centered on how to get the kids moving while also educating them about diabetes."

Pomperaug Elementary has raised a total of $120,000 since it started hosting the event, making it Connecticut's No. 1 School Walk and putting its fund-raiser in the top 10 nationwide. Most of the funds come from donations students collect from friends and relatives. Students also pitch in by purchasing $1 pledge cards; they can fill them out in honor of people they know who have diabetes. Catuccio says it's a way for the children to feel connected to the cause they're supporting.

The Connecticut students' efforts have been noticed outside of their community, too. Pop star Nick Jonas, who has type 1 diabetes, taped a video message for Pomperaug, thanking students and staff for their support and encouraging them to continue the fight against diabetes. His band, the Jonas Brothers, sent the children an autographed concert program and photo.

Baggett says School Walk has given Southbury a better understanding of diabetes. Andrew now attends Rochambeau Middle School, where he also will support School Walk, while his 9-year-old sister, Lauren, who doesn't have diabetes, will participate at Pomperaug. Andrew encourages others to join School Walk because in addition to teaching people about diabetes, he says, it's a step toward finding a cure. As a result of Andrew's example, Lauren is more aware of the carb content in her food, Baggett says, and is more sensitive to people with diseases. "We can all make a difference and, ultimately, we'll find a cure," Baggett says. "For me, I care about the fact that these kids are learning they can help other people."



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