Fair Teaches Irvine Students to Care for Their Health

Times Staff Writer

A cat's lung in a bottle. A handprint of bacteria. Poisonous plants. A former Mr. America flexing his biceps.

They were all displayed Friday to help the students of El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine learn to take responsibility for their own health and safety.

Class by class, the school's 651 students toured more than a dozen booths at the school's first Children's Health Fair, sponsored by several community groups and organized by the Parent-Teacher Assn. The fair climaxed a week of poster making, assemblies, films and discussions on wellness.

"We wanted them to think they are responsible for their own health, not their mom or the doctor," said Chris Hogstedt, a nurse, a mother and chairman of the fair. The point was to instill lifelong health habits--from diet and exercise to hygiene and mental health--by reaching children at an age when they are eager and receptive, she said.

"They caught on quickly," she added.

"Ooooh, gross!" was a typical response to an agar plate showing bacterial growth from the print of an unwashed hand. "I bet they wash their hands after that," commented Charlene Memmott, a PTA mother and fair organizer.

Wizard of Wellness

The students swarmed to see the 21-inch biceps of Kal Szkalak of Huntington Beach, who earned the titles of Mr. America and Mr. California in 1976 and Mr. USA and Mr. Universe in 1977. At an assembly earlier in the week, Szkalak played "The Wizard of Wellness," impressing the children by lifting a 10-year-old with one hand. Now the owner of his own fitness center, the body builder said he wanted children to see that it's "OK for adults to get muscles and work out and continue to do so after school age."

In addition, dietitians handed out sugarless recipes from behind a display of breakfast cereals marked with the amount of sugar in each. An ophthalmologist and a dentist showed videos on eye safety and dental care. The UCI Medical Center Regional Poison Center displayed a poinsettia, a philodendron and other poisonous plants.

The children took their own blood pressure, listened to their heartbeats and checked their depth perception with special glasses. They were measured and weighed. As they went from booth to booth, they filled up plastic bags with free samples of bandages and flat plastic thermometers as well as stickers, buttons and brochures.

Sitting behind a cat's lung in a bottle that demonstrated how clean and delicate a lung uncontaminated by smoke is, Linda Packard, a volunteer with the Lung Assn., stopped nearly every student with the same question: "Anybody smoke in your house?"

One boy looked up defensively. "My father. He's a doctor."

"You think because he's a doctor, he won't get cancer?" asked Packard, thrusting an anti-smoking pamphlet into the boy's plastic bag before he ambled to the next booth.

Slumped in a corner chair was Huggy Bear, a five-foot teddy bear that signified mental wellness, said Hogstedt. "Feeling good, having friends and being loved are part of being healthy," she explained. Usually the stuffed animal sits in Principal Gene Bedley's office. "When the kids are caught doing something right, such as being a good listener or caring, they go to the principal's office and give the bear a hug," Hogstedt said. They also get a card saying Huggy Bear is proud of them.

Decade-Long Effort

The school has been teaching children to take care of themselves for a decade, said Bedley, the self-published author of several books, including "The Big R--Responsibility." "We like them to put on their own bandages and understand proper diet and nutrition," he said. In addition, he noted, school nurses and police officers routinely discuss the dangers of drugs with fifth- and sixth-graders.

The PTA organized last week's fair as an entry in a wellness program contest sponsored by the state departments of Education and Mental Health, said Hogstedt. Schools statewide are vying for a $5,000 first prize, which is to be earmarked for more wellness programs. Organizers plan to follow up by helping children design their own individual health plans.

According to Bedley, children can take charge of their own bedtimes and personal hygiene but need guidance with diet. One sign that the fair was successful, he said, was that students left school Friday saying, "No more Twinkies." The next task, Bedley said, is to help children learn tact and diplomacy in offering health suggestions to parents.

In addition, Bedley encourages concerned parents to lobby against junk food and alcohol ads on television. "It is an uphill battle, there's no question about it," he said. "We're willing to continue the process of education and try to get the proper legislation. It's a moral and ethical obligation for our children."

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