For Coach Donte “DaCoach” Samuel, Marathon Kids isn’t just a school thing, or just a way for his students to build fitness. It’s a community-wide wellness effort that benefits his students along with their families and their entire community, not to mention himself.
Now in his 12th year of running a Marathon Kids club at Belmont Elementary, a public school in Baltimore, Maryland, DaCoach has led a lot of students through fitness and wellness lessons over the years. During this time, he and the kids have called their running club by various names. The name that has stuck is the Belmont Ballers.
In managing the Belmont Ballers, DaCoach keeps things simple: The children, who range from Pre-K to 5th grade students, run at recess as well as during gym class. DaCoach knows the distances between certain landmarks on the Belmont campus by heart, so he tracks his students’ miles himself. When the bell rings, he puts a hand in the air, holding up a certain number of fingers — maybe two, maybe four or five — and the kids yell it out together: “We’re running five laps!” Then they head outside as a group and hit the ground running.
INVOLVING THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY IN IMPROVING CHILDREN’S HEALTH
Like other Marathon Kids clubs, the Belmont Ballers focus on lessons in nutrition and wellness along with their running and tracking miles. Toward that end, DaCoach has established partnerships over the years with local organizations and other entities to enhance the students’ lives with hands-on learning experiences.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, Lauren Williams brings fresh vegetables to Belmont, where the PTA divides up the food and delivers it to students to take home to their families. Ms. Williams, dubbed “the Nutrition Lady” by the students, also brings recipes and prepared foods for the children to sample at school. She and DaCoach together assist the kids in nurturing plant beds outdoors; each grade level at Belmont is in charge of its own fruit and vegetable plot.
This is all through a partnership that DaCoach set up with the University of Maryland. In conjunction with Baltimore City Public Schools, DaCoach has also gotten his Belmont students involved with Great Kids Farm, where the students go for hands-on learning about working with plants and raising food crops. In March 2016, DaCoach and the Belmont Ballers were one of just five groups invited to travel to the White House, meet President and Mrs. Obama, and run with the First Lady as part of the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn.
BRIDGING THE GAP IN A FOOD DESERT
In Summer 2017, DaCoach partnered with Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh to kick off the Billion Steps Challenge, a citywide campaign geared toward getting people of all fitness levels and abilities working together toward a goal of walking one billion steps in a year. This initiative is in line with the Marathon Kids mission of getting kids moving in order to set them on a lifelong path of healthy habits.
“Where we live is a food desert,” DaCoach says. “The grocery stores around here are just corner stores, selling chips and snacks, so that’s where the kids have to go when they want to buy food.”
Most students at Belmont Elementary, a Title I school, come from low-income families that may not have access to nutritious foods, or the parents might not know how to cook healthy meals. To help bridge that gap, DaCoach reaches out to his students’ families via text, email and social media to keep them in the loop and share with them the nutrition and wellness portion of their children’s lessons.
A DEEP COMMITMENT TO HOLISTIC HEALTH AND WELLNESS
DaCoach came about his deep commitment to health and wellness the hard way. Five years ago, he had been suffering for some time from what he thought was asthma. He’d grown up active and athletic, and had already been involved with Marathon Kids for six years at this point. He had also become a certified personal trainer several years earlier and founded GameOn! Fitness, his personal training company. Then he found himself in the position of being 40 years old and facing open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart condition he’d never known he had.
His doctors told him it would take two to three months post-surgery for him to get back into the swing of teaching, coaching and personal training. DaCoach was back on the job three weeks later. He credits his quick recovery to a lifetime of being active and fit, and to the fact that he adopted a vegan diet after his heart surgery.
DaCoach always makes a point of sharing his story and his knowledge of nutrition with his students. He also leads them through weekly mindfulness and meditation sessions to support their mental and emotional wellbeing. So how open are the students to embracing his lessons and incorporating plant-based foods into their diets?
“The kids want to eat their chips and candy,” DaCoach says, “but I tell them it must be incorporated with healthy foods. They also all want chicken boxes.” A local fast-food favorite, “chicken boxes” are boxes loaded with fried chicken and french fries. “The chicken box is everywhere around here,” says DaCoach. “It’s a cultural thing in Baltimore, and the kids prefer that to fruits and veggies. But I try to teach them about making sure your food counts.”
DaCoach teaches his students that healthful foods fuel your body and help you recover from illness and injury more quickly, as he experienced after his heart surgery. In being introduced to these foods, concepts and practices early on, he believes his students will be more likely to incorporate them into their lifestyle for a lifetime of better health.