Parks a service to our youth

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2008

Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins knows the numbers.

One out of three children in America is considered overweight.

In just 25 years, the number of obese children between the ages 6 and 19 has not just doubled; it has tripled.

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The state of Mississippi and Southwest Mississippi, in particular, leads the nation in such obesity statistics.

These same children spend twice as much time watching television and using the Internet every year than they do going to school.

From an early age children experience television as a sedentary activity. More than 70 percent of daycares facilities across the country use the television set as a babysitter.

As a result, more and more children are becoming disconnected from all the benefits the natural world has to offer — both physical and mental.

According to a study by Reuters, treating obese children is three times more costly than treating an average child. More than $14 billion is spent annually on overweight children, a substantial portion of which goes to hospital emergency room visits.

The numbers are staggering, and Jenkins and the entire National Park Service want to play a role in fighting childhood obesity.

This year Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne introduced, with the popular boy band The Jonas Brothers, the “Get Outdoors, It’s Yours” program.

National parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon have long been destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Those huge parks offer hiking, biking, boating and other exercise opportunities.

Such parks are accessible by a small audience of children. Smaller parks like the Natchez National Historical Park play a critical role because they are in small towns, closer to children who may never visit the larger parks.

The park offers nature opportunities, Jenkins said. “With 80 acres at Melrose, there is an opportunity for them to connect to nature, as well.”

But how can the Natchez National Historical Park offer outdoor opportunities to area children? After all, the park is best known for its antebellum houses Melrose and the William Johnson House.

According to Jenkins, that is why deputy secretary Lyle Laverty will visit Natchez Monday to talk to the very people the park service wants to engage — kids. Laverty will spend the day with Mrs. Geter’s fourth grade class from McLaurin School to learn what they want in a National Park.

Representatives from the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians and St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge will also be there to talk to the students.

“These are public lands, you own them,” Jenkins said. The new program hopes to show area residents how the park is not just for tourists coming to Natchez. It can be a valuable resource for its residents too, Jenkins said.

Already honored with a prestigious National Park Service award for its Junior Ranger Camps, the park is looking to add other layers of experience that locals can use for exercise and recreation.

Miss-Lou schools already visit state properties like Historic Jefferson College and the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians for exercise and learning opportunities.

Monday’s meeting will help Natchez and the National Park Service determine how it too can join the childhood obesity fight.

Better still, Laverty’s visit serves as a reminder that the Natchez National Historical Park is not just a place for visitors — it is our park, as well. It may be one of Natchez’s greatest resources.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540.