Students at Whites Creek High School will return Monday from fall break to find improved common areas and new fitness equipment thanks to a two-day push by UnitedHealthcare, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and dozens of volunteers.

The insurance company’s “Do Good. Live Well” initiative and the nonprofit foundation’s Team8 Tour partnered on the project, which aims to promote healthy habits like exercise among teens and fight against the lethargy of spending most of a year indoors. Work kicked off Wednesday morning and wrapped up Thursday afternoon.

Lauren Barca, vice president of clinical services for UnitedHealthcare, said the work is especially important this year after COVID-19 isolated students to their homes for so long. She said they want to provide resources for kids to exercise to make sure their long-term health doesn’t suffer.

“We just know that if kids don’t feel good, if they can’t move their bodies, if they don’t have the self-confidence that being physically active entails, it leads to so many other health issues.”

According to the State of Childhood Obesity project by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about 1 in 5 Tennessee high school students were reported as obese in 2020. That number has only been beneath 15% twice since 2003, according to the foundation: in 2004 and 2005. It has been above 20% since 2017.

Obesity is associated with long-term health problems, and the report noted that 35% of adults in Tennessee were also reported obese in 2020. The foundation provided data only through 2020, so it is unclear if the pandemic had a significant impact on obesity rates.

Over Wednesday and Thursday, volunteers refloored and assembled new equipment in the weight room, dug a garden in the school’s outdoor hallways and made other improvements to the locker room, cafeteria and other common areas.

They also worked with school faculty and some students to prepare healthy meals, and offered a fitness clinic after the work was done.

Whites Creek High School Principal Brian Mells thanked the organizations and volunteers for coming to the school, which relaunched its weight training program this year at the request of students. He said he was grateful to see new equipment at the school, which serves about 530 students.

“We are really helping to transform our school into a thriving environment, which is part of our mission statement every day,” Mells said. “Our school has been here since 1978, and it has not had all of the upgrades that it has needed throughout the past.”

Barca said that lack of upgrades is what drew UnitedHealthcare and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to the school.

When they were working with the Team8 Tour to figure out where they could help, she said they noted the school’s dated equipment and workout spaces. They wanted to help a school, and they wanted it to be related to physical activity, she added, which made the school a great choice.

Mells said students, and especially student-athletes, were feeling energized as they looked forward to the new equipment coming in over the break. He noted that sports teams at the school have been improving and that he’s glad to be able to provide them the support to keep it up.

He also said students were excited about the garden, which will add to the school’s agricultural focus as well as beautify the school, and that he was confident students will have a mindset to pay the renovation forward.

“They are very excited about this opportunity that someone is pouring into them,” Mells said. “And we tell them all the time, ‘If people pour into you, make sure you pour back out onto somebody else, all right, because they didn’t have to be that person for you, as well,’ “ Mells said.

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