Liberty's after-school training program is changing lives through physical and mental health.

COURTESY PHOTO - Emily Heller, Memory Condren, Katie Heller, Sadie Hansen and Nathan Cook are full of smiles just one mile into this year's 13.1-mile Helvetia Half-Marathon.The motto of Liberty Fit is all about encouragement.

"Change your life forever," it proclaims. "13.1 miles? No problem!"

For those of us who start to get queasy about the very idea of running a number of miles measured in two digits, it sounds like a tough ask. But while the program is designed around fitness — of course — there are more than just direct physical benefits to training for a half-marathon. There are also the benefits that come from kids, their parents and the faculty at and around Liberty High School working towards a challenging common goal — together.

Laurie Jenkins, a health teacher at Liberty High, has been involved with the school's Liberty Fit program for the past 12 years.

The veteran Hillsboro teacher took over the reins more than a decade ago from then-dean of students Carlos Sequeira, who started the program as a way "to engage Hispanic students and give them a positive way to channel their energy as they trained to complete a half-marathon."

A dozen students and a handful of adults — including Jenkins — crossed the finish line at the Helvetia Half-Marathon that first year. Now, 11 years later, the program regularly includes 50 to 80 participants, all of whom see both physical and mental benefits from a four-month program culminating with the annual half-marathon in Helvetia. Participants include the aforementioned students, Hillsboro School District teachers and administrators, and family members of past, present and future Falcons.

It's not just the runners who benefit, though.

"I get as much from this as I give," said Jenkins. "It's awful fun seeing it all come together."

What is Liberty Fit?

There are many student clubs at Liberty High, and to an extent, Liberty Fit is just another one of them. It's aimed at inviting and actively seeking out those students at Liberty High School who are not among the "involved" group of kids, providing an opportunity to join a school group where care and support from adults and peers is given and positive habits are developed.

COURTESY PHOTO - Liberty Fit coach Laurie Jenkins celebrates with Zeke Winchester and Emerald Koeppel after the trio crossed the finish line together Saturday, June 9, at the Helvetia Half-Marathon at Hillsboro Stadium. The program, which ended its 12th season, draws close to 100 students of varying abilities to train and complete either the 13.1-mile race or the companion 10K, with Liberty and other HSD staff, family and community members also taking part.
While Liberty Fit revolves around physical fitness, it also helps to build confidence and assimilate students from different backgrounds into a larger cohesive unit.

"It's about relationships," Jenkins said, "showing them that they can improve their fitness, but also achieve something and, in the process, build further belief in themselves."

Participants meet and train three weekday afternoons for 45 minutes, in addition to Saturday mornings for an hour, for 16 weeks leading up to June's half-marathon. The program is free, and kids who can't afford the necessary shoes and clothing for long-distance running are eligible to receive help through fundraisers, grants and donations.

Per Jenkins, Liberty Fit is a school activity, but it's built around a developing family atmosphere.

"The students are at the center of it, but the faculty is involved, and we try and tell the kids families are welcome as well," said Jenkins. "They don't have to just watch — this is something they can actually do with their kids. It's very family-oriented."

Since its inception in 2007, Paula Harkin, co-owner of Portland Running Co., has provided sponsorships and waived Helvetia registration fees for students who complete the 16 weeks of training. When the Hood to Coast Race Series organizers took over as the Helvetia race organizers several years ago, they graciously agreed to continue sponsoring Liberty students in addition to providing opportunities for the program to raise money helping at Hood to Coast events.

"Paula is amazing," Jenkins said. "Without this partnership with the Helvetia race directors, the Liberty Fit program would not be possible."

As part of the agreement with Harkin and the Hood to Coast Race Series, participants are required to attend at least 75 percent of the training sessions in order to be medically cleared to participate in the half-marathon.

"It's a progression training method geared towards building to the event," said Jenkins. "It's important the kids are properly prepared."

Why Liberty Fit?

Childhood obesity in an increasing problem. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in this country, obesity in children and adolescents has more than tripled since the 1970s, and data from 2015-16 shows that nearly 20 percent of school-age children and youth are obese.

"Children with obesity are at higher risk of having other chronic health conditions and diseases that influence physical health. These include asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and risk factors for heart disease," the CDC states in a factsheet on childhood obesity, part of its "Healthy Schools" campaign. "Children with obesity are bullied and teased more than their normal-weight peers and are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression and lower self-esteem."

While there are a number of factors that contribute to childhood obesity, according to the CDC, one of them is a lack of physical activity. Others including poor eating habits and lack of sleep.

COURTESY PHOTO - Liberty Fit's wall of inspiration in the halls at Liberty High School motivates kids and chronicles their journey to the Helvetia half-marathon.Liberty Fit is designed to aid in developing healthy physical and mental behaviors, as well as to combat existing debilitating behaviors by supplying a healthier alternative.

Who's participating?

The program targets those who are lacking in experience with physical activity. For many, running has simply revolved around regular physical education activities and maybe required distances like the mile run in physical education class. But Liberty Fit creates an atmosphere where each student feels like an integral part of the group, setting and working together toward achieving goals while developing kids' physical, mental and social health.

Memory Condren, a first-year participant, was urged to join by Jenkins, who both taught and supervised Condren as a teacher's aide. Prior to Liberty Fit, she'd never run further than a 5K and was skeptical of her ability to do so, but with encouragement from Jenkins, in addition to the training and support of her clubmates, she finished the 13.1 mile half-marathon and impressed others and herself with what she previously thought was an impossible feat.

"It was a real eye-opener," Condren said. "It was extremely gratifying, and not only did I get the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people, but I got to do something for myself that I would never forget. It helped me make new friends while pushing me to do something extraordinary."

Another first-timer was Ethan Clark, who went as far as to say he "hated running" and that he'd always been what he called a "non-athletic person." But in an attempt to prove himself and others wrong, he participated and conquered the program, satisfying his initial desires and exceeding his own expectations.

"My father is a bodybuilder, and I wanted to have the satisfaction of saying that I ran 13.1 miles and prove my parents wrong in saying that I am not very athletic," said Clark. "It was very rewarding."

Liberty Fit also caters to kids with both mental and physical handicaps. The program has had autistic kids and a number of other kids and teachers from the special education program participate, and it even has a race wheelchair that was donated to the program for any athlete who needs it.

"We haven't yet had someone take us up on that," Jenkins said. "But we have that as an option if need be."

Shelley Heller, a teacher in the district, has participated in Liberty Fit for more than a handful of years and has since gotten all three of her kids — Christopher, 23, Katie, 20, and Emily, 17 — to run with her. For her, participating has gone from giving her a chance to rekindle her passion for running into an annual opportunity to train and spend time with her kids.

"Liberty Fit is a way my family can all work on our fitness goals together," said Shelley Heller. "My kids leave me in the dust with their speed, but we can all be on the same team. It is a fun thing we all can share."

Katie Heller expressed her excitement about, after having started the program from scratch, now being in a position to lead people in the beginning stages.

"I started when I was a freshman in high school and have done it every year since," Katie Heller said. "I'm now in a place that I get to mentor kids that are just starting out and don't know what they're doing, just like I was, and I really enjoy that."

COURTESY PHOTO - Liberty Fit athletes, staff, family and community members pose for a team photo before this year's Helvetia Half-Marathon, the culmination of the Liberty Fit season.Everyone wins

Many of the kids that participate in Liberty Fit have little experience playing and competing in sports. So while it was originally designed to get inactive kids to be more active, it's also become an opportunity to empower those who have experienced little of the satisfaction that comes with competing not just with others, but also with oneself.

"There are some kids who this is easy for, and others for (whom) it's more of a struggle, but I've seen kids that wanted to do things that make them uncomfortable, to break barriers," Jenkins said. "I think if you show kids you care, encourage them and do things with them, they can and will do stuff. And that's invaluable."

And you can't forget the fitness aspect. Jenkins said she's seen people lose up to 40 pounds throughout the process, and regardless of whether you run or walk as part of the program, you have to start somewhere, and it's all building towards a more active and, ultimately, a healthier existence.

"Some people say they're 'so slow,'" Jenkins said in reference to beginning kids. "But I say to them, you know what — they're out here, and that's the first step.'"

And maybe Ethan Clark said it best when summing up his Liberty Fit experience.

"Running has forever changed my life, as I am now on the right track to become more physically fit and not so much of a couch potato," Clark said. "Before Liberty Fit, I didn't go outside very much, but I found that I love running and it is a better pastime than watching TV all day."

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