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Going bananas for WeeWalks

Giant mascots help tackle obesity and `poverty of spirit'. Julia Belgutay reports

Giant mascots help tackle obesity and `poverty of spirit'. Julia Belgutay reports

In wellies and waterproof jackets in all colours of the rainbow, race numbers attached, a group of children from St Leonard's Primary in East Kilbride skip from puddle to puddle towards a giant monkey mascot.

Braving the rain, they pose for pictures with the monkey, and receive a healthy snack of bananas as a reward, before they walk on to encounter another fluffy character. In no time, the children have completed their challenge and proudly receive their medals underneath the WeeWalks victory arch.

More than 190 children, with support from teachers, parents and volunteers, completed what was one of the first WeeWalks held in schools, following successful public events across Scotland last year.

The walks - one mile for the younger kids and three for older children - are a fitness challenge set up by WildHearts, a charity run by entrepreneur Mick Jackson.

Schools can contact the charity to set up a WeeWalk in a local park or school grounds and, apart from contributing a fee of pound;5 per child, leave the rest to the WeeWalks team, who set up the track and arrive with start numbers, medals, certificates, healthy snacks and five giant mascots on the day.

Prior to the walk, children receive healthy-eating charts which they can stick to their fridges at home and complete in the run-up to the event. They are also asked to fundraise pound;25 through sponsors - money which will be contributed to WildHearts micro-financing work abroad, making each contributor a "WeeHero".

On the day of the walk, they go through a warm-up aerobics routine to get in the spirit, and while walking, they learn more about eating their five a day from the five WeeWalk characters they encounter at various stages on the track.

Hamilton College in South Lanarkshire was the first school to hold a WeeWalk last autumn, followed by Hamilton School in Aberdeen and St Leonard's Primary in East Kilbride. Last month, a fourth WeeWalk took place at Crosshouse Primary, another East Kilbride school. At least three more are planned for this year.

WildHearts founder Mick Jackson says WeeWalks aims to tackle the two major issues facing children in Scotland today: ill-health connected to obesity, and what he calls a "poverty of spirit". He says he was inspired by his niece's and nephew's excitement over their mother winning a medal at a running event.

"My sister is a keen runner, and she said my little nephew and niece would get so excited for her at the finishing line when she got her medal. So we wanted to create an exercise event that was the kids' event. They didn't get taken by the adults - the adult is a guest of the child. WeeWalks is designed to help kids take ownership of their own eating and their own exercise," Mr Jackson said.

"The child is visibly being praised for eating five a day in the run-up to the WeeWalk. They then come to the WeeWalk as a celebration of their achievement. It starts off with aerobics and they all have their race numbers on, and they all have a great time, then set off."

The fact that the children are contributing to the charity by raising money is also crucial, he says: "We address the second issue in the West, which is the poverty of spirit, the crisis of our spirit. Kids look after their physical health and then, by looking out for others, they associate health and well-being with altruism."

Following initial public events, working with schools seemed the obvious next step, he says, especially considering the learning outcomes in Curriculum for Excellence.

"It really fits in with Curriculum for Excellence, because the teachers can build in geography, global citizenship, health and well-being, self- esteem - it is really wonderful, and they can build the lessons in throughout the year." His hope is that annual WeeWalks will become part of the school curriculum across the country.

Kathlyn Taylor, principal of Hamilton School in Aberdeen, says its walk has been enormously beneficial.

"We have always actively encouraged our children to eat healthily and take regular exercise, and part of our school ethos is and always has been to raise money for children less fortunate throughout the world, so to have a day which placed specific focus on all three aims was excellent," she says.

She thought the organisation by the WeeWalks team was "first class". "All in all, about 150 children took part and they had a wonderful time. So far, we have raised more than pound;4,200 for the WildHearts projects in Africa, which is fantastic. The children, however, are determined to surpass the pound;5,000 barrier. We hope it is the start of a long and healthy relationship with the organisation."

The pupils agree the event was a great success: "I felt really proud of myself and all of us, because we did it all ourselves and I felt very fit and healthy afterwards," says eight-year-old Dara Gbenle.

Her friend Michaela Brand felt "very excited because I didn't know how long it would take me to do the walk".

And classmate Jack Hudson thinks they should feel really proud: "It's amazing how much money we raised. People in Africa don't have money and so we should try and help."


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