KALAMAZOO – A prescription for a kayak set Brother Yusuf Burgess on a mission to sever children and young people from the technology they’re tethered to.
Burgess, executive director of the Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network, headquartered in Albany, NY, was the keynote speaker at an annual gathering of nonprofits and community leadership focused on developing healthier lifestyles for children and the adults in their lives. The theme of this year’s Champions for Healthy Kids Summit, sponsored by the Kalamazoo Nature Center and the YMCA of Kalamazoo County, was all about getting children and youth outside.
“I come from a family of seven. As a middle child growing up in the projects in New York City and Brooklyn during 1950’s, I had a brother who was a warlord and grew up with people identifying me as his brother.
“I grew up from there wanting to be cool. I couldn’t tell people in the projects that I enjoyed watching caterpillars turning into butterflies. I was a closet environmentalist.”
In an effort to distance himself from his father and life on the streets, Burgess joined the Army at the height of the Vietnam draft when he was 17-years-old. He was a radio operator there from 1967-1969 and came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“From that point on it was about my transformation and getting back into the world I left. It was not easy to bring myself back from Vietnam,” Burgess said. “The turning point in my life was a counselor who wrote a prescription for a kayak for me. I got into this small kayak to master some of the things about the outdoors which allowed me to meditate and focus.”
It was while paddling that he discovered his passion.
“I take it very seriously when I see young people who are lost and those pressed into the urgency of the streets and running towards leadership that’s not appropriate,” he said.
His antidote to this is getting children and young people away from their electronics and into the outdoors to gain an appreciation for their environment and the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
More than four years ago leadership of nonprofits, local government and businesses identified the importance of creating a healthier community. Tangible proof of their efforts can be seen in the development of the Kalamazoo Marathon and healthy eating initiatives in local schools.
Steve Springsdorf, executive director of the YMCA of Kalamazoo County, said the summit is designed to encourage organizations that work with the community’s youngest residence to work for change that will result in healthier kids.
About 27 percent of residents in the Kalamazoo area are classified as obese.
“It is a problem in our community because the way our healthcare system is set up, everyone is paying for it,” Springsdorf said.
He recently made a presentation to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club featuring information from the Centers for Disease Control which showed that obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled for adults and tripled for children in the last decade.
In 1990 almost every state was experiencing some level of obesity among its residents in the 10 to 14 percent range. By 1999, a majority of these states were seeing levels in the 30 percent or greater range and ten years later those levels evened out at between 20 and 29 percent.
Although there are a number of diseases associated with obesity, diabetes is one that has seen the greatest increase as obesity levels have risen. In 1958 about one percent of the population or less than two million people were diagnosed as being diabetic. By 2008 that number had risen to about 19 million individuals.
Sedentary lifestyles and lack of access to healthy foods have contributed to a number of preventable obesity-related health issues.
“We want the Kalamazoo metropolitan area to be the healthiest region of its size in the nation,” said Chris Lampen-Crowell, owner of Gazelle Sports based in Kalamazoo. “Over the past year ‘On the Move Kalamazoo’ has been partnering with area champions to develop and initiate movement programs where there is a need.”
Burgess said his programs to get young people moving involve community gardening where they build growing boxes and use tools to plant and harvest; hiking trips in the Adirondack Mountains; fly fishing; and sailing.
One of the keys to the success of his programs is going to where the young people are and having the patience to work with them.
He mentioned the “Eating Well and Playing Hard” initiative which deals with urban agriculture and aligning that with summer youth employment.
“Most of the young kids I work with are 11-17-years-old. The older kids are mentors for the younger kids and we call them Environmentors. The whole idea is to get the kids outdoors and learning,” Burgess said.
During breakout sessions conducted by Burgess, representatives with various nonprofit and community organizations began conversations about opportunities to partner or share information. Springsdorf said this is one way of measuring the success of these summits.
“We look at how many people will step up and do something,” he said. “It’s really how many people at the end of the day will say they want to do something in the place where they can make a difference.”