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Red Ribbon Week tackles health issues in area schools

NURSING STUDENTS Chelsea Engebretson and Michelle Trushcheff give Halloween safety tips to LP-A fourth-graders Riven Donovan, left, Jace Rosing and Nick Rivers.

Lake Park-Audubon fourth-grader Nick Rivers jumped up and down with a weighted backpack strapped to his back Monday morning.

"Uh, this is tiring," he said, smiling and hopping away.

Nick was getting a little taste of what it might feel like to be a smoker.

"They jump first without a backpack, and then they jump with the heavy backpack on to see what it feels like to have less lung capacity and how tired they get," said nursing student Danielle Aldrich.

Aldrich was one of 15 volunteer nursing students from MSCTC in Detroit Lakes who put together a health fair at the elementary school in Audubon.

The fair, which showcased several health-related booths, was the kickoff to 'Red Ribbon Week' -- a nationally recognized event intended to tackle health issues.

"I learned today that there are 206 bones in the human body," said fourth-grader Riven Donovan as she went from station to station, "I learned that you shouldn't take open candy while trick or treating," chimed in fellow fourth-grader Jace Rosing.

The nursing students came up with the topics and activities, which included such things as smoking, hand washing during cold and flu season, Halloween safety, drugs and alcohol, teeth brushing and even household dangers.

"What we're teaching kids at this station is the difference between some medications and candy because they can look so similar," said MSCTC Lab Assistant Sue McClendon.

Pictured for the kids to guess which was candy and which was not were gummy bears and vitamins, nerds candy and rat poison, and gum and viactiv chews.

"A lot of them thought this was the candy," she said pointing to a picture of rat poison, "so it's scary how easily they can get confused," said McClendon.

A little ways away stood a handful of fourth-graders who were looking at a table full of food, trying to guess what contained the most sugar.

Although most students seemed to know it was the soda, some were left surprised by a few of their favorite foods.

"I was really surprised because I thought the chocolate chip cookies would have had more sugar -- I never would have thought it was jello!" said fourth-grader Rochelle LaPoint.

But School Social Worker Jenny Heggestuen says Red Ribbon Week isn't just about physical health anymore -- school officials now want to also emphasize mental and social health as well.

"A hot topic is, of course, bullying," explained Heggestuen, "And while I believe that it's always been an issue in schools, over the years it's gotten more media attention with some of the suicides. And that's good because when a young person is bullied so often that they feel their only option is to end their lives, it is our responsibility to do something."

That 'something' this week includes Twin Cities theater group CLIMB Theatre.

"It's kind of like a teaching company that puts on plays, so they will be putting on workshops where trained educators will act out a play or scene on 'accepting differences,'" Heggestuen said, adding that today's bullying often becomes public through cyber bullying.

"And it is an issue in the elementary, too, because so many young kids have cell phones now," said Heggestuen, "They have computers and facebook accounts, so it's important to teach them about responsible technology use."

Heggestuen says she hopes this week also serves as a springboard for parents to open up and have some dialogue of their own on some of the topics.

Every day this week, the LP-A elementary students will be dressing up in a way that brings awareness to the most critical topics.

"Today (Monday) they are dressed in camouflage or green to signify the fight against drugs," said Heggestuen, "and tomorrow will be pajama day as a way to 'follow your dreams, don't do drugs.'"

Local police officers are also having lunch with the students on Thursday, as part of 'Code Red' day.

"Everything for lunch is red -- spaghetti, apples...," said Heggestuen, "Our hope is to get kids to think about how to live a happy, healthy lifestyle so that they can make good choices in their lives."

Detroit Lakes elementary students also participated in activities for Red Ribbon Week.