LIVINGSTON, NJ — The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and West Essex YMCA collaborated this week to reverse the statistic that one in three children is obese or overweight through Healthy U, the largest and most comprehensive childhood obesity prevention program in the country. The Caldwell University boys’ and girls’ basketball teams teamed up with the West Essex Y on Wednesday for ‘Project Pass the Ball’ at Harrison Elementary School as part of the YMCA’s seventh year participating in the Healthy U initiative.

According to Joanne Browne, YMCA Senior Director of School-Age Child Care, this event was a unique opportunity for the YMCA after-school kids in grades K-5 to meet with college athletes who taught them skills and drills while also inspiring them to become physically active in their daily lives.

“This year we really wanted to do something different and we’ve been looking to engage people who can come in and work with the kids and be positive role models and mentors for them,” said Browne. “[This project] just came together super easily and it’s been so much better than I could have ever even hoped for.”

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According to Browne, the Healthy U signature event “Project Pass the Ball” was also an opportunity for the West Essex YMCA to deepen its existing connection with Caldwell University. When Browne was brainstorming ways to make this seventh year of the collaborative initiative to combat the obesity epidemic among New Jersey children unique, she reached out to Caldwell University girls’ basketball coach Kristina Danella to recruit her players.

“We try to send the message through the activities we have at the Y, but it just sticks better when it’s a fresh face and maybe from someone a little bit more relatable from them,” said Browne. “They literally are looking up to these people as they come in and they’re just so excited and I think that the fresh new faces and the enthusiasm that they’re bringing as players is inspiring to the kids.”

According to Browne, she and Danella came up with this event as an opportunity for the payers to get their faces out into the community and for the kids to hear the significance of healthy living from someone they look up to. Browne said the players were exceptional coaches on Wednesday and that the kids took to them very quickly. Danella said the Caldwell University players, who have their first game of the season on Nov. 14, couldn’t wait to work with the community’s youth.

“It’s great to have the college kids come out and work with kids especially so young,” said Danella. “It’s different for them and they work really well with the kids and it’s a really great experience for us to get out into the community and give back to the kids.”

Browne said this was the first time the YMCA has reached outside the Y and connected with another organization for this child-obesity initiative. In fact, the team visits have been so successful that Browne is reaching out to other college and high school teams who might be interested in working with the after-school program.

The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance created Healthy U in 2008 to prevent childhood obesity through nutrition education, increased physical activity and family involvement. Browne felt that the kids would have a more personal experience learning about this epidemic through college athletes than in their everyday YMCA activities.