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It didn't take long for pediatric exercise scientist Jonathan McGavock to realize that his years of education were virtually useless in preventing obesity and Type 2 diabetes among kids most at risk.
In an effort to keep children healthy, McGavock used to teach the kids he worked with how to exercise effectively and eat nutritiously.
But he wasn't getting through to the young, and mostly indigenous, people he targeted.
They just weren't interested; they had other issues on their minds, says McGavock.
"The slap in the face is you're taking your physiology training and trying to apply it; it's not relevant to the group that needs it the most," says the University of Manitoba kinesiologist and associate professor, noting that many kids he works with face adversity, including isolation, depression and trouble at home.
"One thing we can't ignore is the legacy of residential schools and colonization. We call it a trans-generational stress," he says. "Our indigenous leaders are convinced that this stress also plays a role in diabetes and diabetes rates."
So McGavock started rethinking his tactics.
Today, he builds kids' self-esteem instead of their physical fitness to keep them free of life-threatening obesity-related diseases.
And his strategy has worked so well that he and his research team have received $925,000 from the federal government to further develop the unique school-based mentorship program that he has poured his heart into for the past eight years.
The program uses the philosophy of retired native studies professor Martin Brokenleg. Brokenleg's Circle of Courage model is based on the aboriginal medicine wheel and incorporates basic rules that children need to be emotionally healthy: independence, generosity, belonging and mastery.
In the after-school program, mostly First Nations high school teens mentor elementary school kids. They play games, spend time reading and learn about aboriginal culture. The teens themselves are responsible for developing the lesson plan.
Fellow U of M kinesiology researcher Joannie Halas introduced McGavock to the mentorship program that she co-founded in one city school a decade ago. It had used the Circle of Courage since its inception, but when McGavock stepped into the program a couple of years later, he decided to measure its effects on preventing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
He found by ceasing formal teaching about the benefits of diet and exercise, he finally broke through. Improving kids' self-esteem and awareness of their aboriginal heritage meant they were losing weight and their waists were shrinking.
How? Kids end up enjoying the raw carrots, cucumbers and orange slices they eat in the 90-minute after-school program. They like how they feel when they run around and play. When their mom reaches for a bag of potato chips at the grocery store, the kids ask her to grab bunch of veggies instead.
"One of the theories that we have is the messages that we are delivering to the kids in the school are being brought back to the home and the home culture is changing," says McGavock, who works with several northern Manitoba schools, while his colleagues oversee city schools.
Initial findings about the program's efficacy was published last year in the journal Pediatrics.
Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the body fails to metabolize carbohydrates properly. It can lead to excessively high blood sugar levels and correlating vascular complications such as heart attack and kidney disease. Unlike Type 1 diabetes, the condition most often occurs when people are overweight, underactive and have a high waist circumference.
Type 2 diabetes was previously known as adult-onset diabetes. But the name has since changed after the disease was first observed in overweight and obese children in the 1980s.
The professor says the rates of Type 2 diabetes in Manitoba are "shockingly higher" — even 12 to 20 times higher — than in the rest of Canada. Aboriginal children are the kids most at risk for Type 2 diabetes.
"At the same time, when we go work at schools, the children we work with are full of hope and energy and life," says McGavock.
"There is a lot of strength in our indigenous youth."
At the after-school program (it's called Rec and Read) on a Wednesday afternoon at Buchanan School, teen mentors lead about 40 elementary school kids from the library to the gym amid a hum of laughter and excitement.
In the gym, they play a game called I Like All People that gets them to share their interests and run across a large circle of kids. Katie Wilson, a student at John Taylor Collegiate, is in her second year of mentoring at Buchanan School. The 15-year-old loves working with kids, getting fit and learning about her Métis heritage. She's even noticed all kinds of changes in herself.
"(I've changed) physically and mentally. Last year, I wasn't very active at all. I joined this program. I was losing weight, eating healthier," says Wilson, who wishes she had learned more about her cultural background earlier in her life.
"It's an important culture that people have to realize and not take for granted."
John Taylor Collegiate student Marianne Okemow, 18, says the kids she mentors at Buchanan School are inspiring.
"They are so nice. Some of them are so funny. I was reading to one of the kids and he knew everything.
"When I'm playing games with the kids in the gym, they are so fast. They have so much energy," says the Grade 12 student, who is touched by how much faith the kids have in her.
"I just helped a little girl. She bit into her apple and her tooth was bleeding. She trusted me to do it."
Buchanan School student Kayden Buffalo, 9, couldn't wait to return for a second year to his school's Rec and Read program.
The Grade 4 student says the after-school session has a way of turning a bad day into a good one.
"Sometimes you get the wrong answer on a math test or someone steals your paper or another student shoves you in the mud," says Buffalo, who doesn't know what he would do without the reading time, the games of screaming eagle and the sense of belonging he gets from the program.
"Just how much support they give us," says Buffalo, who can't wait to be a mentor when he is older.
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Updated on Tuesday, February 17, 2015 at 6:50 AM CST: Replaces photo