The students at Gulf Coast Charter Academy South were feeling blue — and tickled pink about it.
In Southwest Florida, reaching the goals of the Blue Zones Project is a work in progress. The regional arm of the organization is working to achieve Blue Zones certification for our area, and one component of that is convincing more organizations to adopt Blue Zone principles and become certified as part of the program.
Blue Zones organizers took steps toward both those goals, when on Friday, April 15, Blue Zone officials showed up at Gulf Coast Charter Academy on Airport-Pulling Road, and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony formally welcoming the school as Southwest Florida's first Blue Zones-Project Approved school.
Most of the 660 students at the STEM-oriented (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school were on hand for the ceremony, and boisterously expressed their approval as the ribbon was cut.
"I've never seen so many kids so enthusiastic," said Dr. Allen Weiss, CEO of the NCH Healthcare System, which sponsored the Blue Zones project in Collier County. "Getting kids off to an early start on a happy, healthy lifestyle is huge."
To earn the designation, students at the school have been making a point to drink more water, often from plastic water bottles provided for the purpose, and getting exercise.
"We walk every day," said first grade teacher Nadiah Yusuf, who helped to coordinate Gulf Coast's Blue Zones application. "Each morning, we walk for 10 minutes before we start class."
The school day also includes 20 minutes of recess for unstructured activity. The children are absorbing the lessons of taking care of their bodies, and not only can be expected to carry on as they get older, but also to influence family members.
"My daughter sees we're doing healthy living, and she wants us to do it at home, too," said one teacher. The children seemed completely in sync with the precepts of Blue Zones, a community-wide well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to environment, policy and social networks — but they see the program through a child's eyes.
Asked what made people who follow Blue Zones ideas special, first grader Brayden Thompson summed it up. "Blue Zones are people that forgot to die," he said. "They didn't get any age. They lived a very long time." Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida executive director Deb Millsap said the same thing in different words.
"The creators of Blue Zones looked at where people live the longest, healthiest lives, and then tried to figure out what it was those people were doing," said Millsap. Based on their findings, Blue Zones created their "Power 9," strategies and initiatives anyone can pursue to improve their health and longevity.
Asked how walking every morning before made her react, first-grade student Miley Destin said, "I feel smart."
"By increasing student activity and reducing the availability of unhealthy options, we can work to improve the overall educational atmosphere and success," said Principal William Staros. "The Blue Zones Project is a great fit for our organization as its principles are aligned with what we have already been doing. And our school colors have blue in them."
The students at Gulf Coast Charter have also planted a garden, growing plants including green beans, peas, mint, cilantro, rosemary, aloe vera and lavender, and are expanding it to include a butterfly garden.
Even students younger than the K-8 student body of Gulf Coast Charter Academy are becoming part of the Blue Zones project.
"FORZA Child Development Center, the preschool associated with Gulf Coast, decided to become involved with the Blue Zones Project as a way to help our staff, students and families live healthier lives," said Misty Doyle, director of early child development. "By becoming a good role model for the children and involving them at a young age, we are building life-long healthy habits and relationships."
For more information about how to make your group Blue Zones-certified, contact the Blue Zones Project team at 239-624-2312 or visit www.bluezonesproject.com.