Last spring, students at Alto Elementary School were supposed to have the chance to participate in a Lowell Wellness Camp. While the COVID-19 pandemic and state-mandated school closures put a stop to that, organizers were committed to making the camp happen in the fall.
However, over the summer, it became apparent to organizers that any camp in 2020 couldn’t occur in a traditional format. So camp director Jodie Seese enlisted the help of Grand Valley State University student Krystal Bunch to take the event virtual.
“I was able to help develop curriculum and create a virtual format,” says Bunch, who is studying for a Master of Public Health and serves as the research and educational coordinator for Lowell Wellness Camp.
The result was a dynamic program that engaged students over a four-week period and exceeded even organizer expectations. If all goes well, the virtual Wellness Camp will be offered later this spring for students at Lowell Middle School as well.
Data-Driven Program Based on Community Needs
Lowell Wellness Camp was born out of a LoWellness Health Initiative that began in 2015. Created with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the initiative was the first of its kind in Michigan and has run through a partnership with Grand Valley State University.
A student survey conducted as part of the initiative allowed Seese and GVSU partners to understand needs in the community. The results of the survey shed light on habits such as energy drink consumption, screen time and use of bicycle helmets. The Lowell Wellness Camp was then created to address priority areas.
“The goal is to empower students and their families to make small, but meaningful steps on their health journey,” Seese explains. To do that, the Wellness Camp focuses on three goals: eating better, moving more and smiling often.
The in-school program launched in 2018, and Seese says it was a hit with participants. The challenge for 2020 was to transform that program to ensure it would be just as successful online. Based on feedback from Alto Elementary students and parents, organizers managed to do just that.
Weekly Deliveries, Daily Zoom Sessions
The in-person Lowell Wellness Camp had students meeting after school to enjoy a healthy snack, take part in a physical activity and focus on mental health. To replicate the experience at home, Seese made weekly deliveries to participants to drop off a toolkit that included a workbook, healthy snacks and other goodies such as water bottles, hand sanitizer and stress balls.
Then, students logged on for 90-minute Zoom sessions throughout the week. Participants would start out together and then break into smaller groups that would focus on nutrition, physical activity or mental health. Each group was led by two coaches, and over the course of each session, all students would rotate through all three breakout groups.
“Overall, I thought it went amazing,” Bunch says. Although she worried that kids would be distracted on Zoom, she was surprised at the engagement of all who participated. “We truly felt the excitement through the computer.”
While students were encouraged to try new tastes and activities, the Lowell Wellness Camp doesn’t force a one-size-fits-all approach to healthy living. “There are no wrong foods or exercise requirements,” Seese says. “It’s about exploring healthier choices and learning what works for you.”
At the end of four weeks, parents agreed the camp had made a difference. Feedback included comments about how students looked forward to the weekly toolkit and were now moving more and asking for snacks without added sugar. One parent noted the Lowell Wellness Camp provided much-needed information about how to deal with stress and express feelings during a tumultuous year.
Seese is quick to praise Bunch for creating an effective and fun Wellness Camp under less than ideal circumstances. “Krystal was the brainchild,” Seese says. “She was amazing.” For her part, Bunch points to student enthusiasm and adaptability as helping make each session a success.
Bunch and Seese are now working out the details on the next iteration of the Lowell Wellness Camp, which they hope to run at Lowell Middle School this spring. If the experience of Alto Elementary School is any indication, students in grades 6-8 won’t want to miss their chance to sign up.
All images courtesy of Krystal Bunch.