Like many doctoral students, Markesha McWilliams
will teach classes to undergraduates when school begins at George Washington University this fall. It will be the first time in her life that she’ll have a job not directly related to sports.
A former All-American and National Champion track and field star at the University of Wisconsin, McWilliams has spent the past 15 years working in the sports and athletic industry. Now the PreventObesity.net leader is aiming to instill a love of physical activity in young people through the Georgia-based organization Operation P.L.A.Y
., which she cofounded.
McWilliams launched the nonprofit with her boyfriend, Derrick Henderson, himself a former football star at the University of North Carolina who now works in law enforcement. The couple were inspired to form the organization after seeing kids who weren’t active after school because their parents were too afraid to let them play outside — and noticing that even during recess, kids no longer seemed to know how to play.
During a visit to one elementary school, for example, McWilliams discovered that none of the kids knew how to jump rope.
“It was difficult for me to find a little girl who knew how to jump double-dutch,” McWilliams recalls to The Inside Track. “And I thought that was bizarre… even kids in my neighborhood who weren’t as fit, they knew how to jump rope.”
And thus Operation P.L.A.Y. — which stands for “Positive Lifestyles for Active Youth” — was born.
Operation P.L.A.Y.’s mission is to get kids active while teaching families how to live a healthy lifestyle. Along with teaching kids about physical activity, one of the organization’s main goals is to help low-income families, many of whom are on government assistance, make better food choices.
Low-income families often don’t have access to healthy food, and even when they do, the unhealthy products are often cheaper, McWilliams says. P.L.A.Y. officials hope to target low-income communities and provide them with hands-on education to teach them how to make better (and affordable) choices when shopping for food. The group flesh out specific programming details during its upcoming board of directors meeting, McWilliams adds.
In the meantime, P.L.A.Y. educators will oversee physical activity programs at a handful of charter schools in Georgia several times a week this upcoming fall, offering structured activities designed to help kids reach a fitness goal.
“Our mission is to teach the kids how to play, which you really think would be a given, that kids would come out the womb knowing how to play,” McWilliams adds. “If you’re using the one moment you have during the school day to be active, and you’re sitting around, it kind of defeats the purpose.”
Parents won’t be kept on the sidelines, either. Once a month, P.L.A.Y. will offer a fitness boot camp to get both kids and parents into tip-top shape. Parents also will be offered nutritional guidance.
“It was actually the parents idea to do the boot camp,” McWilliams says. “We were pitching it to the [school] board, and they were like, ‘This is great! Can the parents come, too?”
Not everything will be like boot camp, as Operation P.L.A.Y. also plans to incorporate fun activities into its programming, including with a partnership with Six Flags Over Georgia. P.L.A.Y. educators will calculate the distance, in steps, from the school to Six Flags. Each student will get a pedometer, and when they’ve logged the steps from their campus to the theme park, they’ll get a Six Flags admission ticket.
It will be the first time Operation P.L.A.Y. has worked directly in schools, McWilliams says. In the past, the organization has held community health events in shopping centers, which included body mass index screenings, an obstacle course for children and nutritional guidance for parents.
For McWilliams, the experience was eye-opening.
“I was seeing 11, 12-year-olds who were weighing 200 pounds… I was like, ‘What’s wrong with the scales? There’s something wrong with our scales,’” McWilliams recalls. “One of our board members, she’s a pediatrician, she said, ‘Markesha, there’s nothing wrong with the scales. That’s why we’re out here.’”
McWilliams’s own very active life continues to inspire her work with children. For her doctorate, she’s researching the effect athletics had on women who played sports from a young age, for example.
“I know what athletics provided for me growing up, and the same goes for Derrick,” she says. “It was just a positive outlet.”