In the battle against childhood obesity, Oklahoma State University Extension is helping students in the Westville Public School District develop safer walking and biking routes to school.
Jessie Garcia, Oklahoma State University Extension educator, High Obesity Program, spearheaded the Safe Routes to School project in Adair County. She said the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Wellness Profile indicates the childhood obesity rate in the county is 51.3%, significantly higher than the state’s average of 36.5%.
The Westville City Council passed a resolution to adopt the Safe Routes to School program, which gave the green light to start the project, she said.
“By passing that policy, the town took the first step in creating a sustainable environment for its community,” she said. “The town has demonstrated its commitment to the health and safety of students.”
In her initial assessment, Garcia saw a need for bike racks, new crosswalks, speedbumps, safe drop-off zones and more. The district has one school that serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“I proposed the idea to the school superintendent because Westville is a rural school and the area around the school wasn’t the safest for children who might bike or walk,” Garcia said. “These have been issues that have steadily gotten worse over the years. Children had grown accustomed to the state of the streets and sidewalks and that has caused them to take less healthy alternatives.
“With the issues fixed, we’re hoping this will encourage parents and children to begin taking steps in the right direction of physical activity,” she said.
Thanks to grant funding, as well as financial assistance from the Cherokee Nation, several improvements have been made around the school in eastern Oklahoma. Garcia said she was just starting on the project when the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her plans. The project has been completed now, including: 12 new crosswalks, the repainting of five existing crosswalks, four bike racks, 72 safety signs, 39 sign poles painted in bright colors and four speedbumps. Funding from the Cherokee Nation allowed Yellowjacket Street in front of the school to be repaved.
The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) Healthy Living program contributed paint for the sidewalks, and the Chain Breakers nonprofit organization purchased signage promoting a tobacco-, alcohol- and drug-free school. The total budget for the project was just under $59,000.
“I believe obesity rates are rising because we’ve become accustom to a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating patterns, along with genetic factors. If a community provides good school infrastructure, good nutrition, a good park and elements that help children get up and moving, they’ll be less likely to be obese,” Garcia said. “It’s vital for communities to do their part in providing these things for children.”
Research shows children who have better academic performance, are healthier and have a safer environment to attend school and exercise will have lower obesity rates. On the other hand, children dealing with obesity tend to have issues exercising, are self-conscious about their self-image and are at a greater risk for diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues.
“The long-term goals with Safe Routes to School are to lower obesity rates and get children up and moving,” she said. “We want to encourage healthy and active lifestyles, have less traffic congestion around the school and make people more aware of children crossing in crosswalks. The brightly painted poles will help the safety signs stand out more and increase awareness of children in the area.”
Westville Superintendent Terry Heustis said he appreciates all of the effort and improvements.
“All of this has really made our campus safer and look better,” Heustis said. “We appreciate their partnership in improving our school and we look forward to any programs that we may partner with them in the future.”
Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilor Canaan Duncan said he was excited to be part of this project and help make it happen.
“This project is a great example of what can be accomplished through great partnerships. I’m proud to have teamed up with OSU Extension and the City of Westville on this project,” Duncan said. “The Cherokee Nation is devoted to investing in the youth, and providing them safe access to school is part of that.”
Garcia indicated the next phase of the High Obesity Program project is to revitalize the Westville Park. A Park Revitalization Resolution has already been passed.
“When people feel safe from traffic and protected from crime, they’re more likely to utilize something,” she said. “This will help connect the school to the park. These children deserve a nice, safe place to play and enjoy after school and during the summer. It also gives families a place to play, relax and have gatherings.”
Some ideas for the park include painting the basketball goals and backboards, installing new nets and painting trashcans.
“It really makes me proud to be involved in this project and having a role in making a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “My hope is that it jumpstarts physical activity in the community. It has been such a blessing to give back to such a deserving community.”
Follow the OSU Adair and Muskogee HOP Facebook page for more information on current and upcoming projects.