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Berrien Takes the "Brr!" Out of Winter Walking. and Focuses on Fitness in the New Year

February 4, 2009

Most folks wait for warmer weather to kick off their New Year's resolutions, but not We Can! organizers in Berrien County, Michigan. Biting temperatures didn't keep them from organizing a children's walk to visit Santa Claus at the North Pole.

That's because they took the walk indoors, to a mall Santa.

On December 13, 2008, some 50 walkers of all ages shed their hats, coats, and gloves and laced up their sneakers to stretch their legs during the "Walk to the North Pole" at The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor.

"We had a good turnout, probably because we held it indoors," said Pamela Kurtz, local We Can! leader and outpatient dietitian at Lakeland Healthcare. "Having Santa announce that you had arrived at the North Pole was also a treat."

Walkers did loops inside the mall and wrapped up at Santa's central-court workshop. Fifteen other nonprofits and healthcare organizations also participated, including the local United Way's Girls on the Run program and the Berrien County Health Department.

Seven adults and one child in matching t-shirts stand with Santa Claus at the mall

Walkers are welcome at The Orchards Mall whatever the season, as part of an ongoing, multi-faceted partnership with Lakeland Healthcare. The collaboration offers a number of health and wellness initiatives, including a "Mall Walker Card" that can be used at stores inside the mall for special discounts.

Walking outdoors is also a focus for Berrien, a We Can! County since May 2008. The county recently won a $60,000 Healthy Communities Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to connect trails in Benton Harbor and make them more fluid. Pamela Kurtz, along with Teresa Green of the Berrien County Health Department, attended a four-hour planning seminar on walking trails based upon lessons learned from a similar project in rural Missouri.

The grant provides $10,000 for the planning phase, to kick off this month, and $50,000 for implementation. A low-income area with a primarily African American population, Benton Harbor has already received other grants to implement healthy eating programs, discourage smoking, and encourage increased exercise.

January was also the kick-off month for Berrien's We Can! Be Fit class, based on the We Can! Parent Program. Organizers registered participants for a six-week, 90-minute class that started January 29 at the Niles YMCA.

The first class is free, and $20 per participant thereafter to cover the costs of program materials and snacks. The classes, which will focus on nutrition and physical activity, will be guided by experts including a professional chef, an exercise specialist, a pediatrician, and dietetic students from nearby Andrews University who will be receiving credits for their participation.

We Can! and the We Can! logo are trademarks of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

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