Through the collective efforts of AFHK’s Family Connectors, our resources are reaching children in areas with the greatest need
Colleen Gonzalez, Family Connector
Founder of GROW Central Florida
AFHK: Your relationship with AFHK started when you ran with our charity team in the Chicago Marathon almost a decade ago. How has running influenced your life and the work you do?
CG: My parents were very overweight most of my life, and I never did a sport. On my own I found my way to being more active in middle school. Running became an independent thing I could do on my own. I didn’t belong to clubs or teams, but I had positive encouragement to get physically active from a high school biology teacher and cross-country coach, who is still a friend to this day. He made me realize that if someone had that impact on me, what a simple way to have an impact to have on other kids whose families may not be physically active and not embracing fitness.
In 2009, I learned about a cross country running program at other schools and questioned why my children’s school did not participate. I was informed that teachers must volunteer their time and fund their running teams. Simply put: no volunteers, no funds, no program. I put together an action plan to ensure my children’s school could have a cross country running team. Over time, I became aware of other schools facing similar challenges with not having experience, volunteers and supplies.
By the time I started GROW Central Florida, I was helping about a dozen schools apply for grants and navigate things. Many of these folks were teachers, custodians, regular school people and support staff who needed support finding resources, the best prices and basic supplies to make the run club and Saturday cross country meets possible. Over time, more coaches started collaborating and working together because they had support and basic resources. By 2020 all 26 elementary schools in Seminole County Public School District were participating, including title 1, Hamilton Elementary coached by a Sanford Police Department Officer and a Virtual School Teachers who did not even have children at the school.
AFHK: May is Natl Physical Fitness and Sports Month and National Mental Health Awareness Month. As a Family Connector how do you see these topics interconnected and playing out in the work you are doing?
CG: We’re working, along with law enforcement support, to put together 4,000 sports ball resource kits in seven counties. Sports and playing can be very therapeutic. It’s helping teach kids how to push through trauma in a healthy way. We’re getting them outside, engaged in healthy activity with the goal of keeping them from turning to negative activities or self-harm. Like my coach, if we can give that child a ball and the opportunity to play and do something a child should be doing, they might make the right choice to engage in physical activity and not choose screen time or engaging in unhealthy or harmful behaviors.
AFHK: What are you most focused on right now?
CG: I have always focused on removing the barriers to achieving the things we’re trying to do in health and wellness, whether it’s helping with recess or proper footwear so kids can do PE.
With a lot of focus on social emotional health, dealing with kids’ anxiety and other issues, we’ve made running clubs and recess high priority within our nonprofit. A lot of schools lack recess equipment, especially since the pandemic, and a lot are facing overcrowding. And they are not adding play spaces and play structures as fast as they are adding homes. There’s an understanding creative and productive free play can help students manage stress.
AFHK: Why did you want to be a Family Connector with AFHK? What do you like most about the work?
CG: There are so many great resources, so many unique support systems. I am all for what’s going to make it easy for staff and parents to create health and wellness. I do it because I care, and I want to help those who have that passion but don’t know where to go.
I like the comradery and support the most. I will cry sometimes and get frustrated doing this work, but the support from Action for Healthy Kids really serves as a higher structure I can use to push on and help others who really care to create change for our kids. Every children’s wellness advocate needs partners who are like minded to help them achieve success and feel good about what they are doing or have done. I get to do that for other and AFHK helps do that for me! AFHK always understands the challenges we face across unique communities and appreciates success in all sizes.
I am very grateful for AFHK’s support. Every year we’re getting more people involved and engaged. When you have the ability to see when you empower people who have that drive, amazing things are going to happen.
Read about Colleen’s work with local law enforcement to improve kids’ health and well-being.