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Ky. man rides to publicize childhood obesity program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shortly after getting off his bicycle Monday afternoon, Steve Stewart got a hug and kiss from his 4-year-old niece, Emma Grace Donnelly.

She had come with her grandmother from Indiana to see her uncle finish a bike ride that exceeded 3,500 miles and ended at the state Capitol Complex.

"She and her brother have missed their uncle," said Mona Francis, Stewart's mother.

For the past seven weeks, Stewart, a Frankfort, Ky., resident, has ridden his bike to the 10 states with the nation's highest childhood obesity rates: Illinois, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.

On the final day of the "Integrity Challenge" ride, Stewart rode from Grayson, Ky., to the Capitol steps.

Stewart's mission was to raise awareness about childhood obesity and also to bring attention to a program he's helped develop. A former special education teacher, Stewart took a night job a few years ago so he would be free during the days to work on a video-based program called "Sound Off."

The program combines physical activity with phonics lessons, and allows teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade to give students 20 minutes of moderate activity while reinforcing basic reading skills.

So far, the program is being used in seven schools in five Kentucky counties.

Stewart and a team of Kentucky educators developed the program because of their shared frustration that they were asked to increase physical activity time and raise test scores without the resources to do so, he said.

Of his team members, Stewart was in the best shape and volunteered for the challenge to bring attention to the program. He traveled the entire way alone with no one following him for support.

"It's been crazy," Stewart said of the bike ride. "I have been, from day one, blessed. There is no denying that God has been watching over me on this trip."

The bike -- the first one Stewart has owned since middle school -- held up with little to no maintenance, he said.

Stewart biked through Georgia and Tennessee as Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. There, wind gusts "stopped me dead in my tracks," he said. "It was miserable."

Before the trip, Stewart said he was beginning to lose hope in people because of the bureaucracy he dealt with in the education system.

"This [trip] has given me hope in people again," he said, adding that complete strangers have taken him into their homes. "It's given me hope that there are still people that care."

The Sound Off program is free to any elementary school that can get 50 people to "like" the Integrity Challenge Facebook page before Dec. 15. When people "like" the page, they're asked to comment and say which school they want to support.

Stewart's team is in the process of developing their next Web-based program.

They're using crowd sourcing website Kickstarter.com to fund the program. The next program will be given away free to every elementary school in the one state that raises the most money to actually develop the program, provided that the program's developers are able to raise at least $500,000, Stewart said.

For more information, see www.integritychallenge.com or find Integrity Challenge on Facebook.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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