Health & Fitness

Performer Ben Vereen advocates wellness via the arts

Ben Vereen speaks to acting and dance student Jackie Bonsignore, 16, at Natomas Charter School on Aug. 11. Vereen says he’s a big believer in taking care of oneself, physically and spiritually.
Ben Vereen speaks to acting and dance student Jackie Bonsignore, 16, at Natomas Charter School on Aug. 11. Vereen says he’s a big believer in taking care of oneself, physically and spiritually. aseng@sacbee.com

He’s a Broadway, TV and Hollywood legend who’s still singing and acting his way across the stage and screen. But Ben Vereen is also an evangelist for teen wellness, preaching to audiences about using the arts to help young people cope with obesity, diabetes, bullying and low self-esteem.

Earlier this month, Vereen brought his Wellness Through the Arts campaign to Sacramento, talking with students, educators and arts activists at the Natomas Charter School’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy, a public high school campus where he’s launching his first Northern California initiative.

“I’m worried about America’s youths,” said Vereen, adding that teens are confronted by a barrage of unhealthy images and behaviors on TV, social media and in their communities. “The arts are a way to show a creative connection that’s positive … constructive rather than destructive.”

Vereen’s program started in 2013 and expanded with outlets in San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. His message is that teens need a healthy outlet to express themselves through the arts, whether it’s dance, singing, music or art.

Aside from encouraging teens to participate in the arts, the primary piece of Wellness Through the Arts is an annual essay contest, called “The Moment I Changed My Life for the Better.” Teens dealing with bullying, obesity, diabetes or other issues describe in a two-page essay or two-minute video something they did to improve their lives. (In the case of San Diego County, the top five winners each receive $500.) The winning entrants are teamed with artistic collaborators at their high school, who put their words into music, a play or other performance.

“When kids see their work has value,” said Vereen, “it gives them a sense of worth.” He said getting the essays and videos a wider audience helps teens realize “they’re not alone.”

Trudy Taliaferro, a Vereen spokeswoman who worked with Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office on the Sacramento visit, said the program is seeking a local sponsor – a bank, credit union or foundation – to help fund the essay prizes.

Cassandra Jennings, a senior adviser in the mayor’s office, said the administration “is certainly supporting (Vereen’s) efforts to combat obesity and diabetes that are affecting our youths. You don’t have to be old to experience those things.”

She added, “One of the mayor’s passions is supporting the performing arts, and using the arts to promote healthier lifestyles is great. We think it will be good for Sacramento’s young people.”

Vereen’s school-based approach mirrors a recent UCLA study that found teens who have positive role models, especially adult mentors at school, tend to be healthier. Other studies show having a role model or mentor boosts mental health and self-esteem, as well as helping to cope with bullying, she said.

“In our study, we found that teens who did social activities like volunteering or participating in non-sports clubs outside of class were less likely to be overweight and obese and were more physically active,” said Susan Babey, senior research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

At his Natomas appearance, dressed all in black from his “Spiritual Enforcer” baseball cap to his sneakers, Vereen was a compelling figure. At 68, he is still performing, with a busy schedule of concerts and lectures in Florida, Arizona and California. In his next movie, “Time Out of Mind,” he stars with Richard Gere as two down-on-their-luck guys who meet in a New York homeless shelter.

Personally, Vereen has endured a number of personal and health-related setbacks, including his 16-year-old daughter’s death in a car collision, his own serious injuries after being hit by a car while walking on the Pacific Coast Highway, a 2012 divorce filing and a diagnosis of diabetes in his 60s.

He says he’s a big believer in taking care of oneself, physically and spiritually. Vereen wears a bracelet of prayer beads and carries a Native American flute that he plays to calm himself. He also sports a number of silver rings, necklaces and bracelets that speak to his spiritual beliefs. Among them are a pyramid-shaped ring that represents “structure,” a braided “worry” ring and a silver feather on a necklace that reminds him to keep his heart light.

At the Natomas apperance, Sonia Rahel-Ahmadzai, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Rocklin, said it’s important that teens have a place, ideally a physical meeting place they can walk to, where they can express themselves through painting, drawing, sculpture, drama or other arts.

“They need a place where they can express themselves without any reservations or fear about being judged,” she said.

Ting Sun, executive director of the five-academy Natomas Charter school, said the program would likely start with an essay contest, similar to that in San Diego, then branch out with student ambassadors to help spread the program to other Sacramento-area schools.

Sun said she’s witnessed art’s capacity to provide a healthy, therapeutic avenue for teens.

“I’ve seen it over and over with our students,” she said. “It’s not about talent, but giving and receiving feedback in a constructive way. When you try and fail at things, you learn from that. It builds a sense of confidence for when you go out in the world.”

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