Meet Karin Wetherill, Wellness Coordinator for the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition (RIHSC). Since 2002, Karin has been active in making schools healthier places for all Rhode Island children. She’s worked with Kids First, the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Alliance for a Healthier Rhode Island and is a consultant on the American Heart Association's Voices for Healthy Kids Campaign in Rhode Island, in addition to her role at RIHSC.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
It was through my work at Kids First where I saw firsthand the need for greater attention to school wellness policies and practices. Kids were getting mixed messages about nutrition and physical activity at school because the environment didn’t always support what they were being taught in Health and PE class. Schools needed to be better models for students. And not all children across the state were in schools that were serving healthy foods and had safe play areas for regular exercise. It becomes a social justice issue when poor and minority kids don’t have the same opportunity and access. All schools can and should model and inspire children to learn and practice healthy life behaviors. They also can engage families and have an impact on the home environment as well.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
Schools are a natural place to teach healthy habits and support children making healthy decisions. It’s critical, though, that they get support. RIHSC provides guidance to districts on the development and implementation of strong wellness policies and helps them put the policies into practice at the school level. At the state level, RIHSC works with our partner community organizations to advocate for laws and regulations in areas such as competitive food/beverage sales and food marketing and advertising in schools and strong Physical Education standards. This combination of state and school level action is effective at making sustainable improvements that will help promote real culture change in our communities!
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
We’ve been fortunate in Rhode Island to have successful collaboration between community-based advocates and state-level leaders. We’ve been able to advance policies and regulations that are making a positive difference in our schools. School leaders are much more aware of the relationship between health and academic outcomes and now take an active role in health and wellness initiatives in schools.
What do you look forward to most about your job?
I get energized by collaboration and partnerships. I love working with a wide variety of people and organizations and finding ways to connect them to each other. It’s fun to be able to work with educators, legislators, health professionals, students, parents, food service staff, farmers and others…..to craft ideas and solutions that will support healthful improvements in schools to benefit children.
What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up?
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and ate my fair share of junk snack foods. Processed foods were the new thing and we were swayed by the marketing of these convenience foods. I’m so glad I became better educated about food and made sure my own children had more fresh food choices. A favorite activity has always been berry picking in season at our local farm.
The Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition was founded as a local chapter of the national Action for Healthy Kids organization. Since that time, they have grown into a vibrant statewide organization of over 100 members, including school districts and community organizations. RIHSC works to support all schools in developing and maintaining healthier environments for nutrition, physical education and physical activity. Through their communication, outreach and technical assistance program, they share best practices, identify funding and resources, offer workshops and trainings, and host an annual Breakfast for School Leaders Symposium each September, where according to Karin, they “are able to bring the entire state health and wellness community together with school leaders to prioritize school wellness and share research, successful practices, new ideas and tools that can be practically used in each school. We want everyone to walk away with something that they can take back to their schools to easily implement.” RIHSC’s mission is to support the work of every district wellness committee and foster collaboration between schools and our member community organizations. For more information visit www.rihsc.org.