By Danielle Curtis
Published in The Telegraph
March 7, 2013

NASHUA – The students shot their hands up in the air, waving their arms, calling out to be selected, sometimes standing on their chairs to be a little taller.

"Celery and peanut butter!" one exclaimed when called on.

"Yogurt and strawberries," another said later.

The students – boys and girls ages 6 to 13 – are members of the Greater Nashua YMCA's Prescribe the Y program, which aims to promote healthy living, nutrition and fitness among overweight children.

The 12-week program provides nutrition classes, exercise sessions and family events about healthy shopping and cooking. Students who successfully complete the course, receive a free one-year membership to the YMCA for everyone in their family.

On Tuesday, a group of seven young people met for one of the nutrition classes led by YMCA dietitian Erin Campbell. They shared the healthy snacks they ate the week before and learned how to "eat from the rainbow," selecting a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors.

"We're learning how to be wise in our meals," Josafa Santana, 13, of Merrimack, said. "Now we know how to have a healthy diet."

The Prescribe the Y program started five years ago, a collaboration between with the YMCA and local pediatricians.

"We thought, wouldn't it be cool if we could get local pediatricians to write a prescription to the Y for overweight kids?" said Joe Manzoli, chief operating officer of the Greater Nashua YMCA.

Manzoli and other YMCA employees teamed up with Wanda Kennerson, program manager at Foundation Medical Partners in Nashua, who was already working with local doctors as part of the local Stay'NHealthy, Growing Strong program for overweight youth. She helped recruit doctors involved with that program to participate in the Prescribe the Y program.

Five years later, the program takes in about 80 children each year, and other YMCAs around the region and the country are looking to start similar programs of their own.

Manzoli said a recent grant from Anthem Insurance Co. means the program may soon be able to grow, bringing in more students or expanding the resources available.

For Kennerson and the local doctors involved in the program, this growth is vital.

"I wish every kid could go through this program, but resources are limited," said Dr. Lila Monahan, a pediatrician with Nashua's Partners in Pediatrics. "When I first got interested in pediatric obesity and prevention, the first thing I had to do was convince people there was a problem. Now I think it would be unusual to talk to someone who doesn't think it is a problem."

Monahan said she has seen increasing numbers of overweight children in her practice. She has welcomed the chance to give them a resource like the Prescribe the Y program, instead of simply suggesting they lose weight.

"This isn't just something they read about or got a pamphlet about," she said. "I'm prescribing it, and studies have shown that a doctor's opinion can really make an impact on patients. I really think this has, at least in my practice."

The financial motivation of receiving a free membership, and including the entire family in the learning process, Kennerson said, are other important factors of the program's success.

In the coming year, the program is expected to get another boost – teaming up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Nashua to provide mentors specifically for kids who went through the Prescribe the Y program, giving them a weekly gym partner and someone to encourage them to stay on track with their healthy habits.

"It's really building up their self-worth," Kennerson said. "And it's being done in a setting among peers just like themselves. It gives them more confidence and is building that foundation toward leading a more active, healthy life."

For the students and families involved in the program, the impact Prescribe the Y has had is clear.

"He's making such good choices," said Diana Paquette of her son Adam, who is participating in the program. "Now when we go out to dinner he's getting salads, not the usual chicken tenders and french fries."

Adam Paquette, 11, said he's noticed the changes in his life, as well. He wouldn't have known how to make those changes, he said, without Prescribe the Y.

"I was lazy and overweight," he said. "Now that I exercise, I can do more things with my friends. You feel better in yourself, knowing you're not overweight."

On Tuesday, Paquette and Santana were joined by several other students taste-testing various fruits and vegetables, from avocado and golden tomatoes to blackberries and kiwi.

Santana said he's learned to like foods he hadn't tried before and has also discovered he loves jogging.

Now, he said, he feels comfortable walking into the gym and added that he wants to continue his healthy lifestyle after the 12-week session is done.

Santana had only one word for how his participation in the program, and his increased health, felt: "Relieving."

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Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).

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