When Pamela Green-Jackson
first became inspired to start a program to encourage wellness among local young people, her brother Bernard Green was her biggest cheerleader.
Green-Jackson was employed at a newspaper at the time, but felt a calling to work with schoolchildren in her Georgia community and teach them the importance of a healthy lifestyle. So Green-Jackson quit her job and focused full-time on her new endeavor.
And she moved forward knowing she had the full support of her only brother.
“He said, ‘Hey, I think you should do something, because you know, I struggle with my weight,’” Green-Jackson recalls. “My brother encouraged me to do, because he said he didn’t want kids to suffer like him.”
Tragically, Bernard Green died in February 2004 from complications due to morbid obesity. But in a twist of fate, three days after he died Green-Jackson opened the first-ever Youth Becoming Healthy
(YBH) fitness center at a local middle school.
Now one of several facilities in Georgia schools, the center provides exercise equipment for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, and aims to instill a lifelong love a physical activity in the students through fitness classes such as hip hop dance and martial arts.
The opening of the first YBH fitness center was a bittersweet moment, clearly. But in her brother’s death, Green-Jackson found the motivation to keep going and spread her new program to other campuses.
“I decided that this is something that could have been prevented,” she says. “I wanted to do something. It was a labor of love.”
Green-Jackson admits she didn’t know the full extent of what she was tapping into. She knew that the middle school students she would serve were heavier than they had been a decade earlier, and she knew that most schools no longer provided physical education. She soon learned much of the food being served in the schools was of poor nutritional quality as well, including through vending machines that dished out unhealthy goods.
But all that new information just spurred Jackson to keep going. YBH programs are now available in several schools, incorporating physical fitness with nutrition education. A variety of activities are offered to keep the young people motivated, and Albany State University students — many of whom are studying to become physical education teachers — serve as personal trainers for the kids.
Since its launch back in 2004, thousands of young people have lost thousands of pounds, Green-Jackson estimates. Healthier food also is now being offered in school cafeterias and vending machines.
Along with helping thousands of students get into shape, Green-Jackson’s work also has gained recognition worldwide, including in 2009 when she was named a CNN hero
. Still, there are struggles, Green-Jackson admits, including finding the much-needed funding to keep the free program going.
But Green-Jackson hopes to continue to expand YBH by bringing garden programs to many of the campuses. “A lot of kids don’t know what fruits and vegetables are,” she says, adding that many of her students live in neighborhoods without access to fresh and affordable produce.
Youth Becoming Healthy remains a family affair, as Green-Jackson’s husband received his certification in youth fitness and helps run the program.