Healthy habits formed in childhood can benefit individuals for the rest of their lives, which is one reason why the Spirit of Healthy Kids Regional Program stands out for its impact in northern communities.

The program is the result of an innovative partnership between junior ice hockey team the Prince George Cougars, the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation and Northern Health. Its creative delivery is key to its success: the hockey players visit elementary schools to engage with students, using the power of positive role modelling to encourage children to adopt healthy behaviours and give back to their communities.

Spirit of Healthy Kids

The program was originally launched in 2015 by the Cougars as the Read to Succeed Program, then renamed in 2016 and expanded across the Northern Health region in 2019. It is now open to 33,000 students across 220 elementary schools, and more than half of the students had already been reached as of spring 2020.

Covering two-thirds of the province, this vast and diverse geographic region includes just 300,000 people living mainly in rural and remote communities. Children in northern BC are less healthy than their peers elsewhere in BC, and are more likely to live in poverty.  In 2019, the SoHK launched its first region-wide challenge, inviting schools to apply with a health promotion project that would have lasting benefits for future students. Six schools were selected to participate, comprising 839 students.

Participating students recorded their time spent reading, being active, making healthy choices, being kind and giving back to their community. They also watched videos of Cougars players delivering health promotion messages through the program’s webpage. The digital delivery, created to extend the reach of the program, was especially beneficial when COVID-19 curtailed in-person activities partway through the challenge period.

The school with the highest student participation in the challenge was W.L. McLeod Elementary in Vanderhoof, which received the winning grant of $5,000. Staff and students put its grant toward their chosen health promotion project: expanding the school’s food programs, which combat food insecurity in the community. Since students were not able to participate in meal programs at school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant supported efforts to deliver weekly food hampers, ultimately supporting 26 families between April and August 2020. As one parent noted, “Not only were the kids working extra hard to be healthy, but their hard work paid off and they benefited children in the community who really need the support.”

Five other schools used $1,000 grants to support a diverse array of initiatives. Margaret Ma Murray Community School in Fort St. John focused on decreasing anxiety and increasing attendance by engaging students in learning, fitness and social activities. Don Titus Montessori in Chetwynd purchased STEM kits and toys for its library. And Harwin Elementary in Prince George installed a “Giving Tree” leading up to the winter holidays and, through student donations, provided gifts and clothes to seven families, and food hampers for an additional six.

Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spirit of Healthy Kids program will continue with its virtual delivery model to expand access across the region, and will incorporate messaging on relevant topics such as handwashing.

“We feel that due to COVID-19, it’s never been more important to promote and practice healthy living among children,” said Breanne Frenkel, one of the program’s coordinators. As the students and staff of W.L. McLeod Elementary showed, building healthy habits isn’t just an individual endeavour: it’s about caring for others, in order to build a truly healthy future where every community member can thrive.