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'Off the couch and off the streets'

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Roy Brown smiled a toothy grin Saturday as he dribbled across the basketball court at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Charleston. Nearby, toddlers trundled around the court, trying to bounce basketballs that nearly knocked them over.

Brown -- a lanky 9-year-old from Orchard Manor -- wants to play in the NBA. On Saturday, he came to the downtown community center for a free basketball camp that drew more than 90 kids.

Those kids otherwise might have spent the bright Saturday afternoon playing video games or watching television. However, Cierra Jones and Kenneth Booth, who founded the camp three years ago, are trying to give those kids a constructive way to spend their summer days.

The have watched the program triple in size, from about 30 children when they started the camp, to the 90 who attended Saturday.

"We basically want to get the kids off the couch and off the streets," Jones said.

Jones and Booth are personal trainers from the Charleston area. They have seen the Charleston community struggle for years to combat obesity.

Yet chronic obesity still plagues the neighborhoods where they grew up.

According to a Gallup study released in March, West Virginia has the highest obesity rate nationwide for the third year in a row -- 33.5 percent -- although obesity in the state has declined since last year's study. Another recent study, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that West Virginia is one of only five states to see reductions in childhood obesity in recent years, although the state's obesity rate is still far above the national average.

"We live a fast-paced lifestyle," Jones said. People move from one activity to the next, she said, but simply do not have the time to cook nutritious food or sit down to family dinners.

Low-income children often are the ones most likely to be obese.

Today, there are very few sports clinics or camps that cater to those kids, Jones said, and poorer families cannot afford to send their children to expensive athletic camps.

Saturday's camp was totally free for participants. Sponsored by the city of Charleston and several local businesses, the two-day program aimed to teach children to remain active.

"It's a parent's dream," said Kristi Providenti, a mother of four who sent her 6-year-old son to the camp.

Her son and the other kids ran around the gym, practicing offensive and defensive basketball drills and doing intensive agility training. Jones fed the kids nutritious protein smoothies made of yogurt, bananas and apples.

Providenti had not expected her son to enjoy a smoothie, but he slurped the drink up and pestered her to make more at home.

"That thrills me," she said.

Two brothers who have attended the camp all three years also took to the healthy foods. They always ask Jones if they can bring the healthy foods home for the rest of the family, she said.

Along the sidelines, parents and grandparents cheered for the rambunctious players.

Chuck Green nodded from the sidelines as he took photos on his cellphone. His grandson stopped, mid-dribble, to beam for the camera, pausing as a crowd of players rushed by.

"Cheesing like a Cheshire cat," Green joked.

Ron Harris watched his deaf son laugh and roughhouse with the other children. Harris beamed proudly. His son has been having a wonderful time, he said.

Parents and volunteers agree, though, that the clinic teaches children more than just basketball techniques and nutritional facts.

"This builds character," volunteer Mikayla Gunn said.

Jones often sees kids fall victim to drugs and addiction. Harris said the summertime, especially, breeds trouble. He thinks children have too much unstructured time during the summer months.

He said the camp keeps them away from trouble.

It also offers positive reinforcement to children who might not get enough love and attention at home, Jones said.

Counselors shouted encouragement to the kids Saturday. Many said they enjoyed playing with the children.

"These little kids, they bully me," Gunn laughed, saying she loves children and the energy they exude.

Counselors say the experience has been rewarding.

"As long as I see the smiles on their faces," Booth said, "I'm satisfied."

Those counselors have become role models for the students, Providenti said. They have built strong relationships that will last for years to come.

Many counselors know, firsthand, how important these camps can be. Several attended similar camps as children. Booth, for example, went to the Charleston football camp founded by Mark Mason, a former standout linebacker at Marshall.

"[Coach Mason] has been a great mentor to me," Booth said.

He said he hopes to become an elementary school teacher and perhaps -- like Mason -- a coach.

Booth and Jones said efforts to combat obesity must begin at local schools. Public schools should introduce more physical education into the curriculum, Jones stressed. She said elementary and middle schools now have as little as one day of physical education each week.

That change happened recently, she said. She used to take physical education classes three or four days a week.

Free athletic camps like the one she co-founded are crucial for combating obesity, Jones said. She and Booth eventually want to expand the camp into a weeklong program every summer.

"We've got a good thing going," Booth said. "The sky's the limit."

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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