Amy Wagner has five children of her own, but there are a lot more she worries about on a daily basis. The 52-year-old middle-school teacher from Salem, Wis., sees firsthand the challenges of keeping kids fit, healthy and happy with their bodies.
“There’s a lot of peer pressure for young girls to look perfect—to be the pretty girl with the cute figure and clothes,” she says. “But at the same time, sometimes I look at what the kids have in their lunches, and there’s not one thing that was made at home: It’s a Lunchable, a fruit roll-up, a juice box and a pack of mini Oreo cookies.”
Though she’s now passionately devoted to eating whole foods and buying locally as much as possible, Amy wasn’t always so health conscious. As a young mom with kids close in age (they now range from 17 to 23), she did what many working parents do—and what she’d seen her own mom do—opting for the quickest meal solution. That sometimes meant frozen dinners and other processed foods. But when her younger sister became a vegetarian, Amy immediately noticed how it improved the health of her family. “Her kids were rarely sick,” she says. “Now if my doctor tells me something is wrong, the first thing I ask is, ‘How can I change my lifestyle to help?’”
With that in mind, at the beginning of 2011, Amy signed up for the Wisconsin Half Marathon, hoping the training might help strengthen her arthritic knee. “I adopted a different kind of exercise routine, and that was really helping,” she says. “I know I’ll have to get it replaced eventually, but all the stretches and squats have really made it stronger.”
One day not long after she’d started training, one of her eighth-grade students, Annah, came into her classroom crying. The overweight teen had just come from a one-mile run in gym class, which had taken her the full 40-minute class period to complete.
“She was breathless and in tears. I was so proud that she had finished, but also very frightened for her, and where she is at age 13,” Amy says.
Amy told her student that she and a friend were training for the half marathon, and invited Annah to join them. They couldn’t always find time to walk together, so she printed out a beginner’s training program and gave it to her student, suggesting they check in on each other’s progress periodically.
“She really checked on me a lot,” Amy says with a laugh. “She’d come in and ask me, ‘Did you walk yesterday, Mrs. Wagner? How far did you go?’”
As Race Day, May 7, approached, Annah seemed to be getting nervous, but on the morning of, she was brimming over with excitement. Though she didn’t make it to the finish line, Annah completed 8 miles—more than half of the race. “Her poor feet were badly blistered,” Amy says. “Think of the determination! I was so proud of her.”
With the new school year having recently started, Amy has a new crop of students to inspire. But though Annah has moved on to high school, last month she stopped by Amy’s classroom to visit. She told her former teacher she plans to keep training and enter this year’s half marathon in the spring.
“Annah is a talented, smart kid who has extraordinary potential,” Amy says. “Kids have gifts they don’t even realize. Maybe it’s just a matter of somebody saying, ‘Hey, I believe in you. Let’s do this!’”