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Chicago Lawn girls explore health, fitness

A little drizzle didn't stop Chicago Lawn's girls from getting in the game. Despite some seasonal showers, over 100 girls showed up at the Marquette Park fieldhouse on April 24 for three hours of healthy activities, including yoga.

"It was something different I never tried," said 14-year-old Ericka Pierce, after experimenting with warrior, tree and other poses.

Photo: Maureen Kelleher

Girls went "head to head" in a fast-moving game of meeting new partners and following directions. 

Not only was the day itself a big success in offering girls new experiences, it gave some the opportunity to serve as junior coaches in the activities. For example, 8th-grader Kecheka Milons demonstrated yoga poses.

"I ate healthy for a week" to prepare, she said, drinking water or milk and eating foods like apples and yogurt. Milons practices yoga regularly and said she has learned "that in yoga, like life, it takes relaxation."

Marquette Park's Game Day-Girls' Health Fest was co-sponsored by the Healthy Chicago Lawn  coalition and Girls in the Game, a citywide program promoting girls' health and fitness.

Girls in the Game, which operates an after-school program at Marquette Elementary, provided equipment, coaches and the schedule of activities. Healthy Chicago Lawn recruited girls from schools and after-school programs in Chicago Lawn and Englewood.

The Healthy Chicago Lawn coalition includes the neighborhood's two New Communities Program lead agencies: Greater Southwest Development Corporation and Southwest Organizing Project.

In addition to parachute games, volleyball and yoga, the girls participated in age-appropriate, facilitated discussions about healthy relationships with family and friends as well as dealing with romantic relationships and handling peer pressure. With the youngest girls, in grades K-3, friends were the key issue.

Photo: Maureen Kelleher

While keeping an eye on their daughters, mothers Anita Muse (left) and Jennifer Esquivel paired up to try out yoga. 

"What makes a good friend?" asked facilitator Veronica Aranda, a health educator from the University of Illinois Extension's Cook County unit. Girls said they looked for loyalty, a good personality and common interests.

"We need to start younger" having conversations about healthy relationships of all kinds, said Ilana Bodini, coordinator for Healthy Chicago Lawn.

From her discussions with students at nearby Gage Park High School on teen dating violence, she's learned that both boys and girls learn early to accept violent behaviors as normal. Changing those perceptions has to start before children become teenagers. "If something sticks for one girl today, that's a step," Bodini said.

To wrap up the day, half a dozen young women from the Arab American Action Network read original poetry based on their heritage and life experiences. To an appreciative audience, they spoke their minds on drugs, violence, the media and the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

About two dozen mothers and grandmothers came with their girls, and some listened in with the youngest girls as they talked about healthy relationships. Others tried yoga. At least one mother tracked down Miriam Merrill, Girls in the Game's after-school program coordinator, to find out how to sign her daughter up for their after-school program at Marquette Elementary.

"It gets them out of the house and off the street," said grandmother Maria Delgado, who brought two of her granddaughters to the event. "If they have another one, I'll come." 

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