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The Windy City's Top Newspaper Covers a We Can!® Program… and Triggers Interest Across the Country

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Posted January 12, 2011

Nearly five years ago, Orlandus Thomas, a physical education (PE) teacher at the Gary Comer College Prep charter school in south Chicago, was asking his fitness-expert friend Tony Czapla for ideas on how to motivate his 500 students.

Cue the We Can! program.

Chef-Guided Nutrition Cooking Classes"He's the one who introduced me to We Can!." said the man students call "Coach Thomas." "Since then, we've been partners in advocating for the We Can! cause, so I would like to give him credit for introducing me to We Can! and sparking the fire in me!"

From there, Coach Thomas began weaving parts of We Can! into his own fitness-focused PE curriculum, and also into events to promote a healthy weight in the predominantly African American community of Chicago's south side. In 2010, some of those workshops and activities included:

  • Hip Hop Aerobics Classes: These classes were very popular with high school students.
  • Chef-guided Nutrition/Cooking Classes: Coach Thomas worked with a chef to offer a combined Thursday/Friday evening class. Students learned about a specific food and its nutritional value on Thursday, and then prepared it on Friday.
  • Women's Health and Fitness Seminars: The chef from the nutrition classes, a physician, and Thomas partnered to teach women about both nutrition and physical activity.
  • Wednesday parent sessions on healthy eating patterns in the African American community: There were two different sessions: one focused on vegetables and their nutritional properties, while the other looked at the nutritional properties, including calories and fat, in fast food.

"I try to push the envelope by combining programs—nutrition and physical activity," said Coach Thomas. "I want to show the community what a healthy lifestyle looks like. It's been a whirlwind of a year but I've only scratched the surface on what I want to do."

That burst of activity caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune, the city's largest newspaper. Reporter Pete Reinwald covered the Coach's efforts in a piece, Pumped-up P.E. at Comer Prep, this past September. You can check out the article by copying and pasting the following URL:

And the story didn't just reach the Tribune's more than 452,000 subscribers—it was also posted to the paper's website for millions of others to read. One of those readers, Sara Harmon, a health and physical education at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, NC, contacted Thomas about his We Can!-based programming, and is now arranging for him to travel there to teach a professional development course for teachers from 16 North Carolina schools.

To top it all off, Coach Thomas is still receiving coverage in the Illinois media: a local television report featured him and his students, and there was a similar story in a Waukegan Park District local paper. As a result, he has received invitations to speak about his programming at other organizations, including the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 2010 Convention. There, he taught participants how to combine dance with music to create an aerobic workout, and incorporate it into their curricula, through his "Hip Hop Aerobics in the High School Classroom" presentation.

"This is my passion and this is personal: I have parents who were overweight and diabetes runs in my family," said Thomas. "No one ever taught me about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity; that's why I decided to focus my career on it, and to help teach others."

Last Updated: February 13, 2013

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