Health matters

George Washington students form PhitPhilly, an outreach organization hoping to make the community healthier.

Feeling fit: PhitPhilly is a nonprofit community outreach program meant to improve nutrition and health starting on a local level. Pictured are (from left) Justin James, teacher Antonios Pitsakis, Mark Sharashidze and David Panea. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

Trying to change the neighborhood is a huge undertaking. A group of dedicated students from George Washington High School is trying its best regardless.

The students have formed PhitPhilly, a nonprofit community outreach program meant to educate about and improve nutrition and health starting on a local level. PhitPhilly is a specific branch of UrbanPhit Inc., which hopes to spread the healthy message beyond city borders.

In early 2017, a group of eight George Washington students signed up for the Aspen Challenge, a competition that challenges city schools across the country to come up with ways to improve their community.

“We had to find a way to introduce three healthy lifestyle habits to the community,” said Mark Sharashidze, the senior vice president and COO of the nonprofit, and a senior at George Washington. “Good nutrition, regular exercise and balanced emotional health.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a 2016 report showing that childhood obesity in Philadelphia had dropped 6.5 percent between 2007 and 2013, though the figure was still less than ideal. An estimated one in every five children is obese in Philadelphia.

“Our school lunches weren’t the best, so kids would bring in a cup of ramen or hot Cheetos,” Sharashidze said. “An alternative to a bad lunch was an even worse lunch.”

A group of eight students supervised by teachers Antonios Pitsakis and Mikhail Zolotnitsky traveled to Aspen, Colorado to present its work and received funding based on its performance. The group also received a $500 grant from Disney Be Inspired Summer of Service, which recognized Sharashidze and the group for making the community healthier.

The nonprofit has been busy in the year since. Over an eight-week period, George Washington students participated in the healthy living challenge. Students filled out surveys asking them about emotional health, anxiety and depression, and academic statuses. Participating students were challenged to eat healthier and be more active.

After the eight weeks were up, the surveys showed that there was a 20 percent increase in emotional health, and a 20 percent decrease in anxiety and depression. Grades also improved by an average of three points.

PhitPhilly also hosted a day where students and community members could come to the school’s gym and participate in active games.

The nonprofit has also helped its members. Just ask David Panea, a soccer player who joined PhitPhilly with all of his friends.

“I’ve noticed there’s a huge difference in my athletic performance before and after,” he said. “There’s a difference when I eat cheesesteaks before a game or whether I eat something healthy.”

Amyah Cotton, the director of education and training, said her favorite part was helping young kids get involved.

Currently, PhitPhilly runs an after-school program for elementary school students to learn about nutrition and health at the Free Library of Philadelphia in Bustleton. Kids talk about nutrition with PhitPhilly workers, help make a fun, healthy recipe, and play outdoor activities during the warmer months.

Healthy living: PhitPhilly has also developed a health and fitness-planning app, which includes links to meal plans, exercise tips and nutritional quizzes. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

The group has also developed a health and fitness-planning app, called PhitPhilly, available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. The app includes links to meal plans, exercise tips and nutritional quizzes. They are working on a game that will include collecting healthy foods while dodging unhealthy foods.

For all the progress they’ve made in one year, they know there is more work ahead of them. The group also hopes to expand beyond just Philadelphia into nearby areas like Camden.

“This is not just a Philly problem, it’s a part of urban life,” Pitsakis said. “The dollar menu at McDonald’s is a lot cheaper than a bag of apples.”

Kevin Hart, a George Washington alumnus, runs a similar group with Rally Health, which PhitPhilly hopes to partner with one day. The nonprofit is also applying for its 501(c)(3). ••

PhitPhilly is active online and on social media. Visit phitphilly.org to see its website, or follow the group on Twitter and Instagram @phitphillygw, and visit its YouTube channel PhitPhilly for a free yoga session.