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Transforming Lives through Running—One Child at a Time

Beyond her role as a middle-school English teacher, Shawanda Weems serves as a coach and mentor to third through eighth graders of the PS/MS 15 Jaguars track team in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx -- promoting physical health and positive self-image in her students.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”–Mahatma Ghandi

It is with humility that I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change. The calling to serve has been passed down from my mother, Peggy Weems, who was a special-education teacher’s assistant in Queens for over twenty years. On weekends, she would gather my sisters and me as she did work in our local church, and those memories were my foundation, shaping my innate desire to be of service to others. Like Ghandi, my desire to “be that change” led me to the New York Road Runners—an organization that has helped me bring physical fitness to my students so that we can eradicate childhood obesity, one child at a time.

I first came to the New York Road Runners in 2004, under the leadership of  Cliff Sperber, when Loraine Pitteruff and I, both middle-school teachers, found ourselves witnessing the effects of our students’ inactivity. Besides the physical weight gain, a kind of lethargy and reluctance to take risks permeated the classroom. At the same time, we were seeing how the all-too-common tendency in urban schools towards academic progress often came at the expense of physical education. As such, the only opportunities our school offered were a girls’ and boys’ basketball team, which presumed a base level of fitness that many of our students didn’t possess. Searching NYRR online yielded information about the development of a youth division, and our program took off from there.

One of the goals of the Jaguars track team since its inception has been to foster positive self-image through physical activity in the most inclusive way possible. Our Jaguars team is open to any student, boy or girl, in grades three through eight, and the students come to our program at varying levels of fitness, striving to meet personal as well as team goals. It has been especially gratifying to see the growth of the Jaguars throughout my eight years: today captains routinely lead the team in stretches and running exercises; we combine weight training with cardiovascular conditioning and team building activities; and we’ve been fortunate enough to travel not only throughout the five boroughs but as far as San Francisco and Athens, Greece. I firmly believe that participation in organized physical education is crucial to building a well-rounded student, and I’m proud to say that through the Jaguars, the physical activity of running, along with the collateral component of goal-setting, has become a prominent part of our school’s culture and our students’ lives.

Those of us who are teachers know that the commitment to our work relies heavily on the ongoing success of our students after they have left our classroom. One student that comes to mind is Cristopher Lora, who, when I first met him, was a shy pre-teen, unsure of his athletic abilities. Like most kids, he occupied his after-school hours with video games and internet use. Becoming a member of the Jaguars allowed Cris to expand his friend base and to engage in play, something I remember as a crucial part of my childhood. The confidence Cris gained as a member of the Jaguars enabled him to go out for his high school team, return to PS/MS 15 as my assistant coach, and ultimately become a recipient of a POSSE Foundation award, which led him to Trinity College on a full scholarship.        

In the words of Michelle Obama, “Let’s Move! isn’t just the name of an initiative. Those two little words are a call to action.” In collaboration with the New York Road Runners, I feel that my call to action is to inspire kids to get active, to help them lead healthy and productive lives, and for them to see how the connection between physical activity and academic excellence can motivate them to impact their brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends.

Shawanda Weems is a middle-school English teacher and coach of the PS/MS 15 Jaguars track team in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.