Off And Running Go FIT Foundation Provides Youths, Women With An Exercise In Healthy Lifestyles

Susan Jaye-Kaplan knows what it’s like to be underprivileged.

Orphaned at an early age, she lived with various relatives in Boston, and was on her own — and on the streets — before graduating from high school. “I knew what it was like to not have a roof over my head and not know where the next meal was going to come from,” she told The Healthcare News, adding that she was essentially going nowhere, and fast, until a mentor stepped into her life.

His name was Lippman Hart

Geronimus. He was a bacteriologist at Beth Israel Hospital, and he came across Jaye-Kaplan as she walked around various offices and labs looking for a summer job.

“He found something for me to do,” she said, adding that his help went well beyond a paycheck.

“He made me say the same thing every day — that I can do anything and be anything I want to be as long as I remain focused, hard-working, challenged, and honest.”

Inspired by her own good fortune and how it was shaped by someone who gave her guidance and direction and helped her believe in herself, Jaye-Kaplan has dedicated much of her adult life to providing similar opportunities for others. A year ago, she and her husband founded the Go FIT Foundation, which provides health and fitness opportunities to economically underprivileged and underserved youth and women in inner city and rural settings.

The foundation conducts six-week programs designed to stress the benefits of walking and running. But its overall mission is to go much further.

Indeed, Go FIT is about more than helping an increasingly overweight population of young people and women learn about diet and exercise, said Jaye-Kaplan.

It also exists to provide guidance, show children that others care about them, and convince these young people that they should care about (and take care of) themselves.

The foundation has conducted 12 programs to date, at sites ranging from YMCAs to area inner-city schools to the Mass. Career Development Institute, and has received requests for dozens more.

The early success of programs conducted in the Pioneer Valley, coupled with exposure in publications such as New England Runner and Runners World, has prompted requests for programs from across the state and, more recently, other areas of the country.

Taking Go FIT from a local to a regional and then national (and perhaps international) initiative is inevitable, said Jaye- Kaplan, noting quickly that she and the group’s board of directors will move carefully as they consider expansion.

Like the young people involved in the Go FIT programs, the group’s leaders will walk before they run.

Step by Step

Jaye-Kaplan doesn’t hide her frustration as she talks about the overall fitness and athletic abilities of the youths she sees at Go FIT programs — or the distinct lack thereof.

When they start the six-week programs, she said, participants do 30 minutes of walking and running — in repetitions involving four minutes of walking followed by one minute of running — and more than half simply are not up to it.

The poor conditioning is attributable to a number of factors, she said, including everything from improper diet to the influence of video games to the fact that parents living in many inner-city neighborhoods will not let their children out to play because the streets and parks (what few exist) are too dangerous.

Participation in a Go FIT program will not change a child’s physique, weight, or endurance level, said Jaye-Kaplan. “Six weeks will not change who they are today, but the hope is that their perception of who they are for themselves will change.

“We’re hopeful that we can change the way young people perceive what they can and can’t do for wellness and life,” she continued. “If they can look at one less day of television and one less day of fast food … if we can change the perception of what they’re capable of doing in their own minds, that’s truly the beginning of what can happen for the rest of their lives.”

This was Jaye-Kaplan’s vision when she and other members of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club, which she formed, started a ‘Walk to Run’ program that engaged area youths in programs stressing exercise and nutrition.

Conducted in conjunction with groups such as Girls Inc. in Holyoke and area YMCAs, the ‘Walk to Run’ programs used running as a way to get young people thinking about the long-term benefits of exercise and healthy eating habits — for both the body and mind, she explained.

The running club was not in a position to expand its ‘Walk to Run’ program, said Jaye-Kaplan, so she and her husband created the Go FIT Foundation to carry on the mission and take it to a higher level.

The group received more than 80 requests for programs, she said, and it conducted as many as time and resources would allow. The sessions are carefully prepared, she explained, adding that there is a lengthy training regimen for mentors prior to each program. Each day’s session begins with a meeting in a “friendship circle,” she said, adding that there are speakers on subjects ranging from nutrition to dental hygiene, as well as exercise routines. Participants log their activities — and their thoughts about them — in Go FIT journals.

Students are given sneakers and Tshirts, said Jaye-Kaplan, but, ultimately, they take something more valuable with them come program’s end — appreciation of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Programs generally cost about $5,000, which covers clothing and footwear for participants and other expenses, said Kaplan, noting that corporate sponsors have helped offset those costs.

Incorporated last January, Go FIT has exploded onto the local health and education scene, picking up major corporate sponsors, energetic and communityminded board members, and considerable momentum along the way.

Carol Leary, president of Bay Path College and one of those board members, told The Healthcare News that she became involved because she believes in Go FIT’s mission of both educating and mentoring young people and women. The college has taken part in a number of the group’s initiatives, she said, including a program for students of Springfield’s Beal School that took part on the campus, and a nutrition program designed to help Bay Path students make smart nutrition decisions.

“These students are enjoying real independence, usually for the first time in their lives,” she said. “They can eat whatever they want; we want them to make smart, informed decisions about nutrition.”

Leary said she has been inspired not only by GoFIT’s mission, but by Jaye- Kaplan’s energetic, imaginative approach to carrying it out.

By that, she meant the creation of what she called “concentric circles.”

“Touch one person, and they are educated in a new way of thinking or a new way of behaving,” he explained, “then they will touch another person. And that’s the brilliance of this program.

“Those individuals who go through the program … their lives will be changed forever; they will always think about what they eat and about the value of exercise,” she continued. “And they will hopefully then touch another person — their own child, a brother, a sister, a mother, a father — who will hopefully be touched by the Go FIT philosophy.”

Other area colleges and businesses have been similarly inspired. The list of sponsors and supporters includes Springfield College and Western New England College, Big Y, Reebok, Lenox American Saw, Health New England, Baystate Health, Spalding, and others.

Looking forward, Jaye-Kaplan said Go FIT’s early success and its strong base of support should enable it to expand its reach well beyond the Pioneer Valley.

Already, the Boston Parks & Recreation Dept. has made inquiries about scheduling programs for dozens of sites, and Jaye- Kaplan anticipates handling that assignment in 2007.

“We’re getting calls from Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, all over,” she said. “It’s gratifying but also a little overwhelming.

We’re going to expand at a workable pace; we want to get all our ducks in a row.”

The Finish Line

Jaye-Kaplan told The Healthcare News that many young people cry when their six-week Go FIT programs end — and she often gets teary eyed herself.

That’s because she views those final sessions not as the end of something, but rather a continuation (hopefully) of a new and different outlook on health, fitness — and life.

As she said, she can’t take an obese child and make her fit and trim in a month and a half. But she can lay the foundation for a healthier life, and that is her ultimate mission. And she’s going to take it take one child, and one step, at a time.

Comments are closed.