Mr. OrganWise Guy made his Lawrence debut two weeks ago, and he’s already becoming Mr. Popular.
He’s visiting children enrolled in Lawrence Parks and Recreation programs and camps and teaching them about their organs and what they can do to keep them healthy. His motto: Low fat, high fiber, lots of water and exercise.
He has brown hair and wears coveralls. Underneath, you can see his organs, which pop out and take on a life of their own.
Each stuffed toy has a fun, memorable name, like Windy the lungs, Pepto the stomach, Sir Rebrum the brain and the Kidney Brothers.
Six-year-old Eli Dick said this week he’s learning about Hardy Heart. “He loves exercise,” he said.
Zahrah Mikel, 8, added that Hardy Heart doesn’t like fatty foods.
In May, Lawrence Parks and Recreation received a $50,000 grant to enhance its summer food program that it offers at South Park, Broken Arrow Park and East Lawrence Recreation Center. The National Recreation and Park Association awarded the funding, which came from the Kansas Health Foundation. Lawrence was one of only five cities nationwide to receive a grant.
Roger Steinbrock, marketing supervisor for Lawrence Parks and Recreation, said they could use the grant on anything but food, so they are using it for items like benches and picnic tables. They also purchased three Mr. OrganWise Guys kits, which cost $1,700 apiece, and they hired Jessie Danon, a nutrition educator, to provide the program. She visits various camps and programs throughout each day and gives an approximately 30-minute program involving Mr. OrganWise Guy.
“I think it’s important for them to learn at an early age that the things we are putting into our body are actually affecting things that are inside our body. A lot of times kids have a hard time conceptualizing that,” she said.
On Friday morning, she and Mr. OrganWise Guy visited 19 children, ages 5 to 10, at Broken Arrow Park. As she pulled out the organs, the kids shouted out their names and talked about their functions.
Danon talked about the importance of eating the right foods for Hardy Heart, and then they broke into small groups and sorted foods that were good and bad. It was a lesson in label reading because they were looking for words like lean, low-fat and fat-free on items like yogurt, cheese, milk and meat. Then, she had the children do a group exercise where they did jumping jacks forward for good foods and lunges backwards for the bad ones.
Seven-year-old Makaiya Jemison said her favorite organ was Windy the lungs because “she helps us breathe and I want to be able to breathe.”
Zahrah said she liked The Kidney Brothers, which are purple with sunglasses. “They both like water, and l like to drink a lot of water,” she said.
The OrganWise Guys program began in 1993 in Georgia and has grown to include 20 states. The programming has shown significant improvements in weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and academic achievement among children, and the results have been published in several journals, including the American Journal of Public Health.
Steinbrock said Lawrence Parks and Recreation wants to help fight the growing child obesity epidemic and said he believes the program will help make strides not only in physical activity but nutrition.
“When kids are deciding they want to go eat a big cheeseburger, they may think, ‘If I have this cheeseburger, is it really going to help Hardy Heart?’ So they will be able to make some decisions based on the characters,” he said.
Steinbrock said they plan to use the OrganWise Guys kits throughout the year, and one will be used by Susan Johnson, a nutritionist at K-State Research and Extension of Douglas County, who helped apply for the grant.
This summer, he expects the OrganWise Guys program to reach about 300 children.
“Even if one little thing sticks, to me, that’s great,” he said.