Nonprofit founded by TV's Dr. Oz seeks to get city's youths off couches, into fitness

04/09/2012 12:00 AM

04/09/2012 6:28 AM

Last year, Michelle Bouchard and Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV talk show host, visited Sacramento. They noticed the problem of childhood obesity here was similar to what they had seen in many cities across the country.

They met kids who knew more about fast food than fresh fruit and spent more time playing video games than ballgames. The problem was typical. But Bouchard realized the community was not.

This is where we want to be, Bouchard told Oz.

With that, Bouchard took the first step toward leaving New York City and making her home in Sacramento, where she oversees HealthCorps, the national organization Oz founded to reshape kids' minds and bodies.

Bouchard and HealthCorps are part of a movement to push back the rising tide of childhood obesity. First lady Michelle Obama is planting gardens and teaching kids healthy eating habits. Oz promotes a healthy lifestyle on his show. And voters indicate they are willing to pay to address the issue: 62 percent of Californians said they would support a special tax on soda and soft drinks to fight childhood obesity, according to a Field Poll released last week.

Bouchard believes Sacramento can be at the forefront of the fight. She said the combination of innovative thinkers, fresh food, location and support from community leaders makes the city an ideal place to wage her campaign.

"I love everything about Sacramento," Bouchard said. "It has a great food culture and a great community for the kind of work we want to accomplish."

But she knows there's a lot of work to be done.

About 43 percent of Sacramento County's fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders weigh more than is healthy, according to results from school physical fitness tests. About 28 percent of students in those grades have body compositions putting them at "high risk" for future health problems.

There are other costs as well. The cost of U.S. hospitalizations related to childhood obesity rose from $125.9 million in 2001 to $237.6 million four years later, according to a study in the journal Health Affairs.

HealthCorps aims to turn this around. The organization, named and modeled after the Peace Corps, consists of young adults – future doctors and public health workers – who work with schools to develop programs that fit the community. The organization, which has an $8 million budget, is funded through corporate and individual donations.

The program promotes nutrition, fitness and mental strength. Curriculum includes field trips to organic farms, the creation of community gardens, yoga and Zumba workouts, and health education.

HealthCorps started in 2003 and is now available on 53 campuses across the country, including three in the Sacramento area: Luther Burbank, Hiram Johnson and Sacramento Charter high schools. Oz is the program's visionary and leader. But day-to-day operations are overseen by Bouchard, who is president of the nonprofit and runs it out of her midtown office.

It's her job to get word out about the organization, and her calendar is filled with meetings with community leaders. She develops long-term strategy, travels to schools across the county and plans fundraisers. She is organizing two now, one in New York and one in Sacramento on April 30. The "Inaugural HealthCorps Gala, Journey to Oz," will be hosted by Oz and his wife, Lisa.

"We believe HealthCorps can serve as a resource to help with the integration of private and public initiatives," Oz said in a statement. "We also felt that Sacramento is an ideal place in which to grow HealthCorps' mission."

Restaurateurs Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney hosted three dinners to introduce Bouchard to regional leaders.

"We are one of the richest agricultural regions in the world," said Patrick Mulvaney. "Let's use our access to food and collaborate with each other to see whether we can improve the health of people who live here through diet."

On a recent weekday morning, Chioma Enweasor spoke to 35 restless teenage girls in a health education class at Luther Burbank High School.

If you have a question about marijuana, now is the time to ask, she said. And they did. Why do people get hungry after smoking? What chemical makes it addictive? Why do eyes get red?

Enweasor, who will attend medical school next year, was friendly and matter-of-fact with her audience.

"HealthCorps is a very positive presence on campus," said Ted Appel, the school's principal. "Chioma does a lot of work, from the community garden to the health fair. She even promotes health among the faculty."

The idea for HealthCorps came after Oz performed a triple bypass on a 22-year-old patient. The young man and his family celebrated the successful surgery in his hospital room with McDonald's hamburgers and fries.

At that point, Oz realized that "something had to be done or he would be seeing more and more young people with heart disease or in the morgue," said Bouchard.

Bouchard is a longtime friend of Oz. She met his sister, Seval, while a student at Wellesley College and the two are still best friends. Bouchard was living in New York when Oz called. "He said, 'Will you be my guinea pig?' " she recalled.

Oz asked if she would participate in a program he was starting called "You On a Diet." At the time, Bouchard was carrying around weight she had gained after the birth of her second child.

She agreed to work with Oz, and her weight-loss journey was chronicled on the Discovery Channel. "When I agreed, I didn't know it would mean having cameras around all the time," she said, laughing. Bouchard lost 30 pounds in three months and became an Oz success story.

She has had an eclectic career, having worked as an actress, a model and in the business world. She was chief financial officer of a corporation charged with the redevelopment of a former military base in New York Harbor when Oz asked her to take over HealthCorps.

"I knew what it had done to me, so I knew it could change lives," she said. "And as a single parent, I know the challenges parents deal with every day."

Her two children, Alex, 21, and Liberty, 11, live healthy lifestyles, and on a recent day at her east Sacramento home, Bouchard encouraged her daughter – named after her hometown in Texas – to play outside.

Bouchard's immediate focus is on the upcoming HealthCorps fundraiser, where the program will be officially introduced to Sacramento. (For more information, go to www.healthcorps.org.)

She would like to see more schools and agencies participate in the program, but her ultimate goal is to go away. "Unfortunately," she said, "there's a big need for us right now."

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