Students and residents in south and southeast Merced will be able to use Farmdale Elementary School grounds after school hours to stay physically active.
A partnership between the Merced County Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, school officials, public health officials and other groups made the program possible.
Claudia Corchado, program manager for the obesity prevention program in Merced, said some residents living in underserved neighborhoods don't have access to safe places where they can be active.
"This is really demonstrating how schools can really be a core access to green spaces for opportunities for physical activities," she said.
The program is working out similar plans with Golden Valley High School and organizers expect in the next few weeks to have access to school grounds after classes end for the day, Corchado said.
"We want to duplicate this in other schools where there's no access to safe places," she said.
At Farmdale Elementary, children and adults will be able to participate in free yoga and Zumba classes as well as dance and other youth activities. The activities are expected to serve more than 500 youth and adults throughout the year, according to the program.
Corchado said the program received a $25,000 community grant from Dignity Health, the parent company for Mercy Medical Center. The program will use the money to help pay for the instructors who will teach the classes.
The turnout for the classes, which began last week, was large -- 124 people in Zumba and 52 in yoga classes, Corchado said.
"We have teachers from the schools that are joining us, but most of them are residents who live in the area," she said. "They are really embracing the minutes of physical activity."
People who have recently been diagnosed with diabetes and others who need to lose weight for medical purposes were among the participating residents, Corchado said. "They are really embracing their health now and are really embracing these opportunities," she said.
Once the grant runs out, organizers are hoping that participants will make contributions to help support the instructors, Corchado said. "We really want this to stay alive once this grant funding is over," she said.
Kathy Moser, principal at Farmdale Elementary School, said the school already has healthy practices in place, and this partnership is an extension to those. Many of the residents are able to walk to the school to take part in the activities, she said.
Keeping the school grounds open after school won't necessarily require additional costs, but it will require more maintenance and management, Moser said.
"I think it's an absolutely wonderful opportunity to help our school families sustain or gain health," she said.
Janice Wilkerson, director of mission integration at Mercy Medical Center, said the $25,000 grant is being put to use in an important way.
"Getting kids engaged in their health care is very, very positive," she said. "Our youth are our future as everyone knows. Creating a healthy place for them that's safe to actually encourage physical development helps with childhood obesity and other health-related issues that those students might be at risk for."
The city of Merced also co-sponsors "Yoga in the Park," along Bear Creek, with free classes every Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.