In January, 2011, Karl Chambers Jr. wasn’t making any New Year’s resolutions. He expected his days to be as tedious as they had been the previous year, when he spent more time asleep than awake. When not at school, he lay in front of the television. “I was tied to my bed,” he recalls, not an exciting outlook for a 17-year-old approaching high school graduation.
Karl’s weight had steadily ballooned since middle school. In those years, he won trophies playing football. Yet at home, fried foods, pork, and soft drinks were staples at the dinner table. By twelfth grade, Karl’s weight had soared to 365 pounds and the teen was in denial. “I didn’t see a problem. I was comfortable, eating, and being lazy.”
His poor diet and exercise habits led to a health crisis. During his senior year at East High School, Karl was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, which the doctor attributed to his morbid obesity. “You have to take diabetes medicine or you’ll die,” his physician told him. Despite this warning, Karl took his medication sporadically. “I was rebellious. I felt I was too young to be that sick.”
Karl also suffered with sleep apnea so severely he was chronically late, often missing school altogether. When he didn’t attend P.E., he missed chances to exercise. Karl’s parents and sister suffered with obesity too and were not practicing healthy behaviors to improve their condition.
Creating Healthier Habits
But the new year would bring changes and lead his entire family towards a healthier lifestyle. When school resumed in January, Karl was encouraged to participate in Healthy Kids & Teens “Camp Get Fit,” after-school program. Sponsored by United Healthcare Community Plan, Healthy Kids & Teens encourages students to become health champions for themselves and their families.
In bi-weekly classes, teens in the after-school program participate in physical activity for 30 minutes and learn about fitness, health, and nutrition. Karl started with hip-hop abs (similar to Zumba). “It was hard, then I started looking forward to it.” Karl learned to monitor calories and to stem his appetite by drinking water. By May, he was 20 pounds lighter and could walk around the mall without getting winded.
He graduated from high school that spring, but a seed had been planted. He wanted to get back into shape. “I threw in some cardio, cut calories, and lost 40 pounds over the summer,” he recalls with a smile.
Karl’s enthusiasm was contagious. His father, Karl Sr., joined him for walks and weight-lifting, 11-year-old sister, Skyler, began walking a mile every day with her dad and brother. As the family’s cook, mother Alisha dropped pork and soft drinks from the menu and instead, added lots of vegetables.
For more than a year, Karl stuck with a 1,500-calorie a day plan, exercising enough to burn 2,500 calories. His goal was to lose two pounds a week. His efforts paid off — he dropped 132 pounds in 18 months. Today, former classmates don’t recognize him. At 6’1”, he’s down to 232 pounds.
Gone is his diabetic medication and the sleep apnea. “I now sleep well and feel great!” And the 20-year-old isn’t about to get off track. Push-ups, sit-ups, weights, and walks keep him in shape, and he plans to lose 40 more pounds. With energy to spare, he works at AutoZone and has a sideline business fixing up cars.
His dad lost 50 pounds, his sister 20, and while his mother struggles to keep a regular fitness routine, Karl will continue to guide her.
“Healthy Kids got me started,” he says. “They kicked off every thing. My advice is to get active and be responsible when you eat. You’re never too young to catch a disease.”
About Healthy Kids
Clintonia Simmons founded Healthy Kids & Teens (HKT) in 2006 with a simple mission: to help kids and their families lead healthier lives. HKT, supported by Tennessee Coordinated School Health, serves children from ages 3 to 19. “ ‘Healthy living begins with me’ is our motto,” Simmons says. “You have to get youth to own it and help set their own goals. If they own it, you get better results. It’s impressive that Karl was motivated to continue beyond our work in the after-school program. We teach kids to be health champions in their families.”
And it’s working. “Our 5-year-olds have told their moms, “Don’t eat cookies. They’re bad for you,’” she says with a smile.
Camp Get Fit is held at 10 school locations. Some are included in P.E. or lifetime wellness classes; others are held after school. Simmons customizes programs for each schools’ needs. While kids attend Camp Get Fit, parents of preschoolers can attend Smart and Secure Children, a class offered in partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine. The 2014 summer camp will be held at a Shelby County School location. Camp participants dance, learn yoga, do strength training, and garden.
Getting in the Game
HKT works with Boys and Girls Club of Memphis and has served 20,000 kids state-wide. At first, this was a one-woman operation that Clintonia funded herself. Now, corporate sponsorships support the program. Before trying to help a village, Clintonia started at home. Her daughter Jessica had gained weight while in middle school, losing social confidence.
So Clintonia urged her daughter to exercise, but Jessica wanted a partner. Together, they lost 80 pounds. “When I began HKT’s work, it was often stated to me that youth do not buy food and must be directed by parents,” she says. “I know differently because my daughter motivated me to change and begin this wonderful service.”
After attending a meeting that focused on childhood obesity, Clintonia saw the magnitude of the problem. “It hit me — I’ve got to help these kids.” Driven to make change, she became a certified fitness trainer and studied for an M.B.A. in healthcare management. She eventually hired 15 trainers with master’s degrees and consulted with a pediatrician and dietician.
Kids Encouraging Parents
Wellness and P.E. teacher Yas Dillard was on diabetes medication when her son participated in an after-school program. “He encouraged me to run in a 5K,” she says. “Next I trained for a half-marathon. Now my goal is to run one race every month.” After cutting breads and sweets, Dillard lost 52 pounds and no longer requires diabetes medication. At Southeast Prep Academy, she inspires her high school students, who say, “You can do it. So can I.” She has mostly male students who enjoy the high-intensity workouts offered in the afterschool program.
When Clintonia first started, Memphis was ranked third in the nation for childhood obesity. Today, the city’s ranking has fallen slightly to number five. “Our work is making a difference. The most important thing is to change the person within.”