Cultivating Healthy Schools
Sunflower Foundation > 2014 Annual Report > Features > Cultivating Healthy Schools
JC Harmon: ‘A symbol for hope and progress in our community’
Lower incomes can often lead to lower expectations, but high school students in one of Kansas City's least affluent neighborhoods have been changing that perception.
The Argentine community of KCK lies in southern Wyandotte County, the poorest part of one of the state's poorest counties. However, in the heart of Argentine also lies the promise of a better life, at J.C. Harmon High School.
Harmon is where classmates Ahmedin Issak and D'Angelo Hicks forged a friendship and bucked the trend of what society too often expects from inner-city kids.
They graduated in May 2014. Both are now enrolled in college. But before they left Harmon High, they left their mark. Issak and Hicks helped create a recreational resource for their school and for the Argentine community where they grew up.
"If you looked around this campus, it was basically just 10 acres of nothing here, surrounding the school building," Issak said. "So, we just came up with an idea that could help out our community, leave a legacy and perhaps inspire younger students."
During their junior year, Issak and Hicks joined other students to come up with a school project that would beautify and enhance the school grounds. Working together, sometimes on Saturdays, the two classmates quickly emerged as student leaders.
Gathering input from others, they came up with a plan: build a huge walking trail on the mostly empty school campus. Students raised money and secured additional support, including a grant from the Sunflower Foundation. The result was a half-mile trail around Harmon High.
The project was student-driven, but they did have help. Marilyn Alstrom is executive director of 20/20 Leadership — an educational, personal and leadership development program serving students at Harmon High and other Kansas City area high schools. Her office ultimately wrote the grant. “But the students were a huge part of writing it. They did the work to get the project off the ground,” Alstrom said.
She also credits Rick Malone, a student adviser, football coach and popular math teacher (quite a feat). "Students like him, they trust him, respect him," Alstrom said. "He kept kids motivated and worked with students on Saturdays, using his own money to provide soft drinks and treats during work sessions. How many teachers do you know who spend their Saturdays and their own money on their students? That's what Rick's all about."
"There's definitely a negative connotation to inner-city schools like Harmon High,” Malone said. "This project helps highlight the positive. The trail has helped boost school spirit, raise attendance and increase community engagement with Harmon High."
Despite its urban location, the Argentine neighborhood is isolated, all but cut off from the rest of the city by interstate highways, railroad tracks and the Missouri River. Many residents lack transportation, adding yet another layer of isolation. "Those who live here didn't have a safe place to go to exercise," Hicks said. "The closest trail we had to walk or jog was the Country Club Plaza (a dozen miles away), and many residents don't have cars to get there."
But it's still just a trail, isn't it?
"People who don't live in the Argentine community don't get it," Issak said. "They don't see the high obesity rate. They don't know Wyandotte County is the least healthy place in the state. This trail is a basic foundation to start changing that. And this is the perfect place to put the trail. We feel like Harmon High is the heart of Argentine. It's really not far from everyone's house, and residents can easily come here and get fit."
The school has drawn some national attention. In late October, a six-person film crew from Salud America came to KCK to conduct interviews about some of the exciting things taking place, including the school's new trail. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Salud America is a national project focused on improving the health of Latino Americans and telling their stories. Latino students account for more than half of Harmon High's enrollment.
Hicks appreciates all the attention his high school is getting: "The trail is a symbol for hope and progress in our community."
There’s a crisp breeze and the leaves are falling. Children are gathering with their families at the city park. It’s national Walk and Bike to School Day, and this is the starting point for a quarter-mile journey to the town’s elementary school.
With their brightly colored backpacks, the children ride bikes, or run, or skip or walk hand-in-hand. It’s the fourth year Nickerson Elementary has participated in Walk and Bike to School Day, and more than 200 students join in. Community members, local Boy Scouts and even the town's mayor take part as crossing guards or otherwise help the children get safely to school.
The scene feels emblematic of life in the rural Midwest. With flags flying over brick streets, friendly faces all around, children laughing and enjoying the outdoors, Nickerson is the picture of small-town America.
But this is just one day a year. The rest of the school days won’t have crossing guards. And the only safe option for walking or biking near the school had been an uneven, sometimes muddy walking loop around the jungle gym.
When the school’s nutrition secretary Amber Sue Rohling heard about the Sunflower Trails grant program, she figured she’d found a way to change that and give Nickerson’s children a safe, fun way to get outside and exercise.
A grant, community matching funds and several tons of concrete later, the 6-foot wide, 1/3-mile trail is getting use — many times, every day.
At the start of each school day, just after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, teacher Rex Mathias marches his third-grade class outside and takes them to the trail.
"Every morning we head out and do two laps," Mathias said. "Most kids run, some kids walk. It takes about 15 minutes. We get a little exercise, get their minds open and ready to work."
As a physical education instructor, Cyndi Harmon has been helping Nickerson kids get fit for the last 23 years. In the past, when she had kids run laps, they did so on an uneven foot path, carved into the ground by years of use.
"It was just a dirt trail with holes in it and I would ask maintenance to come out and paint it for me," Harmon said.
"Each student gets a bright yellow foot card. It's a little piece of paper with a large foot drawn on it. All around the foot are little mile markers," Harmon said.
Every lap earns a hole punch on the card. When students collect enough hole punches, they earn a small foot charm, which can be placed on necklaces and bracelets.
"The kids love them," Harmon said.
Students hit the trail for more than walking and running. "We were able to purchase about 30 foot-powered scooters for the kids to use on the trail," Rohling said, "because we wanted to create a way for kids to have fun and not even realize they're actually getting exercise."
Nickerson is located in the rural part of Reno County, about 15 miles from any other trail or workout facility.
"We're also a lower-income community, and most people don't have the money to belong to or drive to a private gym," Rohling said.
“This trail gives all community members an outdoor exercise option right here in town.”
Most of these marathons are played out on trails, funded in part by the Sunflower Foundation. The Salina public school district has eight grade schools; five of them have trails. As chief grant writer for the district, David Cooper had a hand in all five of them, including the latest one at Heusner Elementary.
"These trails transform lives in a lot of different ways," Cooper said. "First, they're a great and safe physical resource for outdoor activity. These trails are made of concrete, so they're durable and long-lasting. But they're also highly visible. They send a positive message to the whole community that we value physical fitness for the young and old."
The school trails get a lot of use before, during and after the school day, but this is especially true during "Marathon Month" at the start of each academic year. "The idea of marathons was actually developed by the Greater Salina Community Foundation in partnership with the school district," Cooper said. “All eight of our elementary schools are involved, and the Community Foundation supplies signage as well as incentives and rewards for the students."
"In this community, there's a greater sense of the importance of health at a younger age," Cooper said. "With the nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity, more people are paying attention. I think the trails are a good response to that. It sends a message to the community that our schools take the issue seriously."
The Sunflower Trails initiative is part of the Healthy Living & Active Communities program area. Since 2005, Sunflower has partnered with communities and schools in more than 50 Kansas counties, using more than 110 trail grants to help build, expand, enhance or connect Kansas trails. Use our Trail Finder app, learn more about current or upcoming Sunflower Trails grant opportunities, and find more information here.