Program for kids struggling with obesity helps them make healthy choices

  • Emilia Sema, left, was enrolled in ProActive Kids because she was large for her age, but her younger sister Madison also benefitted by learning to eat healthier foods.

    Emilia Sema, left, was enrolled in ProActive Kids because she was large for her age, but her younger sister Madison also benefitted by learning to eat healthier foods. Courtesy of ProActive Kids

  • John and Debbie Sema look on as their daughters, Emilia, left, and Madison, try out a healthy recipe during a ProActive Kids program.

    John and Debbie Sema look on as their daughters, Emilia, left, and Madison, try out a healthy recipe during a ProActive Kids program. Courtesy of ProActive Kids

Updated 1/23/2013 10:11 AM

Naperville resident Stephanie Hough estimates that her son Jack Maring was 60 pounds overweight when she enrolled him in ProActive Kids last fall.

Fearing that her then 8-year-old boy was at risk for developing diabetes, she had tried everything from having him work out with a personal trainer to meeting with a dietitian.


Nothing had made a significance difference.

So when a doctor recommended ProActive Kids, an eight-week program for children struggling with unhealthy weight, she admits she wondered whether it would change anything.

"I was skeptical going in because we had tried so much," she said. "We walked out feeling, 'This is it. This is going to work.'"

It did work. During the eight weeks of ProActive that Jack attended at Edward Health and Fitness Center at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, Jack lost eight pounds, decreased his body mass index by 6.4, learned to make healthy food choices and grew in self-confidence. Since then, he has continued to lose weight and has more energy and stamina, Hough said.

"We signed up to do it again," she said. "We enjoyed it so much and it was such a great thing,"

The next sessions of ProActive run Jan. 28 to March 22 at Edward Health and Fitness Center in Woodridge, Wheaton Community Center, New Life Bilingual Church in West Chicago and Advocate Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn. Discussions are under way for a fifth site in Downers Grove. Each site can enroll a maximum of 20 children.

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Children ages 8 to 14 attend sessions from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays that address nutrition, fitness and lifestyle. They learn to identify the reasons they eat when they are not hungry and develop other coping mechanisms. On Friday Family Day, any family member ages 3 and older is encouraged to participate from 4 to 6 p.m.

The free program is for children considered obese or at risk for obesity, with a body mass index in the 85 percentile or above. Families are asked to get a referral from a physician. ProActive offers three sessions a year at its different locations.

"Our goal is sustainable health," said Nicki Klinkhamer, ProActive's executive director.

About 200 kids have gone through the program so far with promising results, but Klinkhamer said the real test will be in the long-term.

"This is just the beginning. It's once you leave here," she said.

Wholistic approach

ProActive was started in 2009 by Klinkhamer's husband, Wheaton resident Tony Burke, who was obese as a child. Put together by professionals in the fields of fitness, nutrition and the psychological aspects of lifestyle, the program was run by volunteers for the first year and a half.


It became part of FORWARD, Fighting Obesity Reaching Healthy Weight Among Residents of DuPage, a coalition of health care providers, schools, businesses, park districts, and other organizations and individuals working together to address the problem of obesity in DuPage County.

Seeing that ProActive was taking a hands-on approach, Cadence Health, the owner of Central DuPage and Delnor hospitals, became the sponsor of the Wheaton site in early 2011.

Tammy Pressley, director of community, government and public affairs for Cadence, said a health needs assessment the organization conducts every three years indicated that fighting obesity should be a priority because of its relationship to a host of other health issues.

Cadence also was interested in eliminating the economic barriers that keep some families from enrolling in fitness and nutrition programs, she said.

"The fact that it's free and that it addresses in a wholistic way the issues these kids and families experience, we wanted to be a part of it," she said.

Cadence's funding requires that ProActive report on the data showing what difference the program is making in the body measurements of its participants.

"We've been thrilled with the data," Pressley said. "We know they are making a measurable change in the lives of these children and families."

Edward Hospital and Health Services became a sponsor of ProActive's Woodridge site in January 2012. Brian Davis, vice president of Edward, said previously some physicians had programs for obese children, but nothing as comprehensive as ProActive.

"I feel we're part of something new and exciting to change the dynamics for these kids," he said. "The families are very excited about the program. It's impacted households not just individual kids."

John and Debbie Sema of Glen Ellyn couldn't agree more. They enrolled their daughter Emilia, 7, in the Wheaton program last fall after expressing concern to her pediatrician that she was above the 90th percentile in height and weight for girls her age.

During the program, Emilia reduced her body fat but the entire family benefitted by attending on Fridays. Younger daughter Madison, who was 4 when the program started, is petite and didn't have her sister's weight problem, but she did have horrible eating habits, John Sema said.

"My younger daughter loved sweets," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised when she started eating some of the foods we introduced to our older daughter."

The whole family has reduced their intake of sweets and fast foods and made it a goal to eat dinner together and exercise more, Sema said. He said he lost 5 pounds during the program, and his wife, Debbie, said she has lost 15 pounds since last fall when the family started making a conscious effort to be more fit.

"It was a wonderfully put-together program," Debbie Sema said. "It's not about being on a diet but about making good, healthy lifestyle choices."

Sema acknowledged that getting their daughter to the program three times a week for eight weeks required a significant effort.

"It was definitely a commitment, but it was well worth it," he said. "You can't put a price on your health."

Parental involvement

The program is designed to require parental involvement, but some parents are more supportive and willing to participate than others, Klinkhamer said. In some cases, school social workers have brought kids to the program.

"Some (parents) are in complete denial that their children are overweight and truly have no idea how to tackle it," she said. "(But) we've had increasingly better parent engagement."

Special sessions for parents give them an opportunity to share with one another. Families who complete the program also are invited back for special events that give them an opportunity to do activities together and for ProActive staff to take down data on how the children are doing.

Klinkhamer is hoping more participants sign up at the West Chicago site, which opened last fall with a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. The Oak Lawn site, sponsored by Advocate Children's Hospital, is opening for the first time in January.

"We have a lot of people coming to us," Klinkhamer said.

Hough said she has been spreading the word to all her friends. She and her ex-husband went to the Friday sessions together with their son, did the exercises with him, and started involving Jack more in meal planning. Jack said they found healthier ways to make his favorite dishes.

"They told me a lot of stuff about how to eat," he said. "It was fun and it really helped."

Six feet tall herself, Hough said Jack has been big since he was a baby and she knows he always will have to watch his weight. But she is feeling much more optimistic about his chances for a healthy future.

"He knows when to stop himself now," she said. "It really involved the kids in making the right choices for themselves."

For information on ProActive Kids, contact (630) 681-1558 or

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