Shawanda Weems is all about the kids, not about the headlines. So she was a bit surprised, to say the least, when she learned that she was about to be recognized by the White House.
"It was humbling to learn that someone would honor my work with New York Road Runners and my work with students over the years," said Weems last night as she returned home via train from an exciting day in Washington, D.C. "The idea that it came directly from the White House is pretty awesome, I must say. It makes the work a little bit easier."
Weems, a 36-year-old English teacher at PS/MS 15 in the Bronx and a coach in the NYRR Young Runners and Mighty Milers programs, was one of 13 leaders from around the country recognized yesterday as Champions of Change for their work to inspire and empower America's youth to lead active, healthy lifestyles. First Lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move!" initiative focuses on childhood obesity, presented the group.
In a statement, Obama said: "I'm so proud that leaders like these have found new and exciting ways to help our kids get up and moving. If we're going to end our nation's epidemic of childhood obesity, we need to make sure our kids get the physical activity and nutritious foods they need to grow up healthy and strong. These leaders have done just that, and that's what makes them true champions for their communities and our country."
Weems wasn't the only honoree with connections to NYRR. Cindy Coughlin, a physical education teacher at Alice Beal Elementary School in Springfield, MA, was feted for helping to develop a walking program for her students taken from the NYRR Mighty Milers plan, which she discovered on the internet.
In collaboration with the Youth and Community Services branch of NYRR, Weems has established running-for-fitness programs that serve more than 350 students in her school. Two of those students—current Young Runner Kiara Fernandez and former Young Runner Cristopher Lora on her school's team, the Jaguars—accompanied her to the ceremony.
"Those of us who are teachers know that the commitment to our work relies heavily on the ongoing success of our students after they have left our classroom," Weems wrote in a blog entry on the White House's Champions of Change website. "One student that comes to mind is Cristopher Lora, who, when I first met him, was a shy pre-teen, unsure of his athletic abilities. Like most kids, he occupied his after-school hours with video games and internet use. Becoming a member of the Jaguars allowed Cris to expand his friend base and to engage in play, something I remember as a crucial part of my childhood. The confidence Cris gained as a member of the Jaguars enabled him to go out for his high school team, return to PS/MS 15 as my assistant coach, and ultimately become a recipient of a POSSE Foundation award, which led him to Trinity College on a full scholarship."
Also joining Weems at the event were Paola Baptiste, manager of NYRR's Young Runners program, and Cliff Sperber, NYRR's director of Youth and Community Services.
Weems has no plans to rest on her laurels, not even for the weekend: She'll be taking 25 students to the Youth Jamboree tomorrow at the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg