The positive effects of healthy habits established in childhood can last a lifetime. Consider this: Just by eating breakfast daily, kids are more likely to attend school regularly, have sharper mental focus and earn better grades, which in turn can lead to college and career success.
To instill the importance of physical activity and eating nutritious foods, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania recently hosted its first Games for Good field day at Highmark Stadium, South Side. About 500 corporate volunteers led games like sack-and-egg races and a food group relay for more than 800 kids.
The field day kicked off the United Way’s efforts to engage young professional volunteers through its United for Children initiative, which reached over 76,000 children last year through programs promoting school attendance, literacy and a smooth transition from Pre-K to Kindergarten. Other United for Children programs include Be a Middle School Mentor and fitUnited, which partners with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC to provide Healthy Out of School Time (HOST) by consulting with more than 70 afterschool care providers on everything from snack choices to exercise.
One important feature of Games for Good is its emphasis on accessibility, says United Way’s Tanya Baronti. She believes this event and other fitUnited projects serve to reduce barriers to healthy habits.
“You don’t need to go to a gym or a court. You can have fun in your neighborhood or backyard,” says Baronti, director of United for Children. Another advantage of the field day activities is their wide appeal: “A 30-year-old adult can enjoy the same activity as a 5-year-old child.”
For volunteer Shawn Robinson, Games for Good is an important step towards increasing the visibility of United for Children’s impact on the community.
“We do a lot of things with kids because we want them to realize there are a lot of people in this community who care about them and support them,” says Robinson, co-chair of the United Way’s NextGen volunteer group. Each year, for example, NextGen collects college hoodies for middle school mentors to distribute to kids as a reminder that college is an achievable goal.
“I got a hand-written note from one of the students who hadn’t thought about college, but after a conversation with their mentor, they’re striving for it,” says Robinson. “That was a humbling experience.”
The focus on helping kids and families is part of what got Natalie Talpas on board as a United Way donor and a volunteer.
“My husband and I designate our monetary donations to supporting children, youth, and families mostly because we have a young family ourselves,” says Talpas. “The most rewarding part for me is knowing that my time is going towards activities that support Pittsburgh’s greatest community needs.”
As co-chair of the Bridges Society, a group of donors age 45 and under, Talpas played a key role in recruiting volunteers and planning the field day, which she hopes will have a ripple effect.
“Exposing kids at a young age will hopefully help to influence their choices in the cafeteria and after school,” she says. “And maybe influence other family members and friends as well.”