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Editor's note: Five We're Thankful For is a series of five articles profiling people who are doing good for our community. This is the final article in that series. 

Kamela Johnson can relate to the challenge facing children who want to change their diets.

Several years ago, Johnson gave up processed sugar. Being a nurse manager at Regional Hospital who is well-informed about nutrition and health didn’t make it any easier.

“Are you kidding me?” she said. “That was a minute-by-minute very difficult thing.”

Johnson (whose first name is pronounced like "Pamela," but with a "K,") stuck with it because she wanted to improve her health and set a good example for her family, including her 11-year-old daughter. Johnson said the change has given her more energy and has eliminated her mid-afternoon bouts of sluggishness.

To help children achieve similar health benefits through changes in their diets and lifestyles, Johnson is using $80,000 in grant funds from Kohl’s Cares to offer free KidShape programming in Rapid City.

The expert-designed, evidence-based KidShape program focuses on children ages 6 to 12 who are overweight or wish to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Families who enroll in the program participate in weekly, two-hour evening classes for a six-week session. During the classes, they learn about nutrition, cooking, behavioral modification and physical activity from experts including pediatric nurses, a dietitian and an exercise physiologist.

“It focuses on family, which is really important to us, because we know we can educate the kids about it, but when they go back into the home, the parents are the ones buying the food and creating the environment,” Johnson said.

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The program is in its fifth session locally. About 30 children have participated so far, and Johnson wants to grow those numbers. She said the busy lives of families and a social stigma around the problem of childhood obesity have kept some people away. For one recent session, the program had 20 referrals from local professionals and nine children whose families confirmed their interest in the program, but only three who showed up.

Johnson said she and the other professionals involved with the program are regrouping and looking for ways to get more children and families involved.

“It is devastating to see the amount of resources that are available to people, and yet not be making the big impact we are hoping for,” Johnson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, obese children have higher risks of health problems including asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and type 2 diabetes. Obese children are also bullied and teased more than their other peers and are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression and lower self-esteem. Obese children who remain obese as adults have higher risks of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cancer, according to the CDC.

In South Dakota, the rate of overweight or obese children has remained stuck at about 32 percent every year since state government began surveying the height and weight of children during the 1999-2000 school year. Nationally, the trends and numbers are similar, with 30.4 percent of U.S. children rated as overweight or obese in 2017.

With her involvement in KidShape, Johnson hopes to play a part in finally bringing those percentages down. 

Johnson, 39, grew up in Rapid City and began working at Regional Hospital as a nursing assistant while she was in high school. She later followed her grandmother and mother into nursing, and she's now been at Regional Hospital for 20 years. 

Johnson sees her effort to reduce childhood obesity as a natural extension of her work as a third-generation nurse.

“I have a passion for kids and health,” Johnson said, “and I know what an impact this makes on their life. It's really sad to me that this could be the first generation that will not outlive their parents.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."