Diane Ferrucci, physical education teacher at Rochester’s Wilson Magnet High School and a parishioner of Brighton’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, has witnessed for years a growing epidemic among youths — obesity.
During the 24 years she has taught at Wilson she recalls having no more than one or two students per year who had weight problems. During the 2003-04 school year alone, she had one class in which there were 12 students who weighed more than 200 pounds.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, this past school year Ferrucci established a weight-loss challenge for students and staff. Her inspiration came from Dr. Phil McGraw, whose daytime talk show targets those struggling with weight management. In organizing the challenge, Ferrucci drew from Dr. Phil’s book,The Ultimate Weight Solution, and its emphasis on having a close circle of support for weight-loss success.
Ferrucci wanted to foster such support. “What better way than to have a kid paired up with one of their teachers who wish they had lost weight earlier in life,” she said.
So the challenge was set, with 50 students and 50 staff members taking part. Challenge participants were expected to cut back on fast food, incorporate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their diets, consume smaller serving sizes, cook at home, learn how to count calories, record progress in a food diary, and create a personal exercise plan and implement it at home at least four days a week.
Seventeen-year-old Anthony Young, who will be a senior at Wilson in the fall, took part in the challenge.
“The reason I did the weight-loss challenge was to better myself, to keep healthy and to lose some weight,” he said. “I didn’t like the way I was looking so I wanted to change myself.”
“You have to be ready to change,” said Latiffany Anderson, 18, a challenge participant who graduated in June. “You can’t just say you want to join and not do anything. You have to actually work.”
“She wanted the participants to have a whole healthy lifestyle,” Melanie Williams, guidance counselor at Wilson and a challenge participant, said of Ferrucci. “It wasn’t just about losing weight, it was trying to help people make better choices.”
Health education was Ferrucci’s primary focus. She invested in lesson materials with money out of her own pocket, spending at least $1,000 on visual aids such as models of fat and muscle tissue and three-dimensional illustrations of clogged arteries. She strove to make the severity of weight gain and unhealthy lifestyles as real as possible.
“I tried to teach them everything they can use at home,” she said. “Kids in the city are not going to join gyms, and they’re not going to buy expensive equipment. So what we did was learn every alternative way to exercise, whether it was walking at the mall, walking at the airport, walking up and down the stairs or using cans of food for weights.”
An integral portion of the challenge included monthly weigh-ins for all participants. The initial weigh-in took place in September 2003 and continued on the first Monday of every month for the remainder of the school year.
“The kids were so open about weighing in, giving me their weight, trusting me and asking me questions,” Ferrucci said. “That’s what I loved about it. People weren’t afraid to come to me and be a part of this group.”
In January, continuing to be inspired by Dr. Phil’s efforts to reach people affected by obesity, Ferrucci sent to the show’s executives letters from her students and herself, outlining the challenge’s success. The show’s producers called Ferrucci two days after receiving the letters, informing her they would be sending cameramen to Wilson to cover the next weigh-in. A 60-second clip of the event aired March 8.
Seeing the staff and students’ success up to that point, Ferrucci felt they were ready for a new challenge. So she entered them in the May 8 5-kilometer Run for the Young, which was sponsored by the Diocese of Rochester.
Michael Theisen, director of youth ministry for the diocese and organizer of the run, said he was delighted to hear of Wilson’s weight-loss challenge and encouraged Ferrucci to get as many people to participate in the run as possible. Ferrucci expressed concern that the challenge participants were not runners, but Theisen said he assured her the event was open to anyone of any skill level.
Prior to the run, officials at Birds Eye Foods saw an article in a local newspaper about Wilson’s weight-loss challenge and wanted to support the participants. The company offered to pay the $12 entrance fee for each of the 91 participants who took part in the run. “The $12 entrance fee would have been tough for a lot of kids,” Ferrucci said.
Brandy Davis, 17, was a student who took part in the run, finishing with a time of one hour, six minutes.
“I thought I wasn’t going to finish the race,” she said. “But I just kept going and going because I felt like I owed it to Ms. Ferrucci because she’s done so much to help me and everybody else.”
Dominique Balkum, 17, finished the race in a little over half an hour. “I really didn’t think I was going to do the run in 37 minutes,” she said. “I really didn’t think I could run that fast in that short amount of time.”
“I thought the run was a good experience because my mom did it with me,” said Latiffany. “I wanted her to exercise, too, so that was the first step into getting her to exercise.”
Wilson received the award for most participants in the run and was also awarded the School Spirit Award.
“It brought joy to my heart to see so many students, parents, teachers and their families exercising together on a Saturday morning,” Ferrucci said. “Kids have asked me since then, ‘are there any more races coming up?’ I mean, that’s what fitness should be all about.”
Wilson’s final weigh-in was on June 7. By the end of the school year, the students lost a total of 299 pounds, and the staff lost a total of 410 pounds. Latiffany was the top weight-loser in the school with a total of 35 pounds.
“Everything I learned this year I’m definitely going to continue this summer and when I go to college,” Latiffany said.
Overall, Ferrucci said she is proud of the results of Wilson’s first weight-loss challenge.
“This was the only club where it was great to be a loser,” she noted. “You were losing and it was great!”