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School, YMCA new partners in fitness

Zach Smith works out on one of the machines at the new wellness center at Foxborough High School. Zach Smith works out on one of the machines at the new wellness center at Foxborough High School. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — A dark, worn-out weight room at Foxborough High School has been renovated and transformed into a bright, 3,500-square-foot YMCA-run “wellness center’’ where students and school staff can work out during and after the school day.

The unusual collaboration with the Hockomock Area YMCA is believed to be the first of its kind in a public school, anywhere. Officials who gathered at a dedication ceremony last week said they hope the program will be seen as a model for other such arrangements around the nation.

“We knew that in order for our students to develop lifelong healthy habits, we needed a drastically different approach,’’ said Foxborough School Superintendent Chris Martes, who presided over Monday’s festivities.

That meant seeking to adjust available space to make it more accessible and appealing for exercise, and finding ways, in a tight economy, to sustain it, he said.

Monday’s celebration came just a few days after the Foxborough School Committee approved a new district wellness and nutrition policy whose priorities range from a focus on physical exercise to the kinds of healthy foods and beverages that can be sold at the school. For Foxborough and other school districts, the term “wellness’’ not only relates to fitness and nutrition but also anti- alcohol and tobacco messages.

Martes said the idea for the collaboration with the YMCA came to him last year. He said he believes a wellness-based program would not only go a long way toward helping to fight the childhood obesity epidemic, but also broaden the high school experience for all students, with instruction in fitness and social and leadership development.

Martes said he soon began meeting with Hockomock Area YMCA president Ed Hurley to hash out some ideas, as the concept was not one the school could afford to implement on its own. In the joint effort, three Foxborough teachers will use the center during the school day to teach wellness classes, supported by Y employee Brandon Phillips, who will staff the center for others working out until 6 p.m.

“Foxborough Public Schools made a concerted effort to direct resources to this area of student wellness, and the Y emerged as a natural and willing partner,’’ Martes said. “I think we will forever see that impact on every young person who walks through these doors.’’

An exuberant Hurley said Martes’s vision was driven to reality by legions of volunteers, including Foxborough Selectman Larry Harrington and his wife, Judee, who donated $100,000 of the approximately $250,000 total cost of the wellness center. The Y handled the rest.

With his wife at his side, Harrington spoke briefly about the impact a good school district can have on a student’s life. He said he can remember the name of every teacher he ever had as a boy, from first grade on up.

Harrington is also a former member of the town’s School Committee, and said he originally ran for that post because he wanted to shine a focus on wellness.

“Education makes a real difference,’’ he said. “And on behalf of Judee and I, and our parents who are no longer with us, we want to thank Foxborough for welcoming us 17 years ago.’’

Other area politicians, or their representatives, also stopped by the high school briefly on Monday to share in the festivities and get a tour.

State Senator James E. Timilty of Walpole said he appreciated the chance to take in the new setup, as long as he wasn’t asked to use it.

“I’m a real couch potato,’’ he said.

Not so US Senator Scott Brown, of Wrentham, who asked his representative, Jerry McDermott, to make an appearance in his absence because of a prior commitment.

“We wouldn’t have a problem getting him in here,’’ McDermott said of his boss, a former athlete. “The problem would be getting him out.’’

State Representative Jay Barrows of Mansfield said he felt inspired by the attention being paid to students and their needs. “It’s a very exciting day for me,’’ he said.

But the most exuberant thumbs-up came from those who will use the facility on a daily basis. Olivia Darcy, 15, a freshman who made her way to an elliptical machine, called the equipment incredible.

“I do cheerleading, and now our coaches will take us in here after our practices,’’ she said.

Freshman Zach Smith, 14, who plays football and lifts weights, said he already appreciates the easy access to the center.

“I see it as a way to get stronger,’’ said senior Tim Shallow, 17, who, with muscles already rippling, will be entering the Marines after graduation.

As does Will Lebron, 15, a freshman, who said it’s easier to get serious about a workout when weights are organized and there’s room to move. “It’s awesome,’’ Lebron said.

As Martes watched boys and girls move from one machine to another, he said: “It is making a huge difference already.’’

In addition to exercise, the center will host classes in wellness, leadership, and life skills. The center will be staffed by a YMCA employee until 6 p.m. daily and offer 15 hours per week of leadership instruction in areas such as social and career development, youth and government, a statewide mock government program, and a Leaders Club focusing on values, relationships, and volunteerism.

The school’s sports teams will also work out there.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.