Just as plans for a full-fledged wellness program in the Sun Prairie School District looked promising, the COVID-19 pandemic brought fear of a delay.
“COVID hit. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to get put on the back burner. This is going to be completely forgotten because we are in a global pandemic,’” said Karyn Richmond, district wellness coordinator.
But that didn’t happen, and the program’s relevance was magnified by the pandemic. Funding fell into place through a repurposing of a benefit through SSM Health, and Richmond started full time in her position on July 1, 2020.
“People are stressed out. Their mental health is suffering (since COVID-19),” Richmond said. “I’ve been really thrilled with what we have been able to do here.”
Now, less than 1½ years later, the program was recognized by the Wellness Council of America for building high-performing, healthy workplaces. The Sun Prairie School District was one of the nine institutions in the nation in 2021 to receive the highest level of recognition, the Platinum Award. The contest is not just open to school districts.
The mission of the school district’s wellness program is to provide ways to inspire employees and their families to become full partners in managing their overall well-being.
This past year the wellness program worked to increase use of the district’s employee wellness clinic, an SSM Health facility that offers free or low-cost appointments and more than 20 services to employees and their families.
The wellness program also offers a wide variety of wellness activities and onsite flu and COVID-19 vaccinations.
One of the recent activities was the latest segment of “Tastes From Around the Globe,” which was an online presentation of how to cook Kung Pao chicken led by Chef Jorge Lopez, who is the husband of district employee Michele Vollmer.
Lopez said he picked Kung Pao chicken because it is a simple recipe and he figured many people like Chinese food. But he also wanted to show people that they can cook it at home with less sugar and sodium than what people get in restaurants.
He is currently a chef specialist at Hy Cite Enterprises of Middleton, where his duties include teaching people how to use the company’s high-end kitchen equipment and testing new products. Lopez, who was born in Mexico, also works with the Latino market by making familiar recipes healthier, more efficient and cheaper.
He also does work for some chefs on the Food Network and helps create new dishes at the Essen Haus and Come Back In restaurants.
An earlier “Tastes From Around the Globe” presentation featured Chandu Vemuri, executive assistant to Sun Prairie School District Superintendent Brad Saron. Vemuri, who was born in India, made an easy chickpea curry dish.
Richmond, who teaches classes offered by the wellness program, said she particularly likes the cooking one and how it meets an overriding goal of promoting connections.
“We just kind of feel connection equals wellness,” she said.
Richmond said the cooking class can include a staff member’s children, and any habit is more successful if it can be done at home.
Vollmer, administrative assistant to the director of student policy and school operations, said she is passionate about wellness and serves on the district wellness committee and also did that in a previous job.
“I participate in as many classes as I can fit in my schedule,” she said.
She also credited Richmond for being passionate about her job and having a knack for getting people involved in the wellness program.
Richmond recently started “Holiday Wellness Bingo,” which involves participants completing items on the bingo sheet as a way to handle any stress brought on by this time of year. The activities are diverse and include reconnecting with an old friend, eating five fruits and vegetables in one day, getting a flu shot, trying a new fitness activity and attending a concert. Participation makes staff and family members eligible for prizes as an incentive.
In addition to weekly classes — such as ones that focus on fitness, yoga and meditation — Richmond and other instructors run occasional classes such as the “financial fitness” series. Challenges run nearly monthly have included “Thirty Days of Mindfulness” and a weight loss one last summer. Staff can request to teach a class, such as a cribbage class taught by an administrative assistant and her husband. Meet-ups that focus on activities such as mountain biking will start up again in the future.
A nurse practitioner from the wellness clinic also runs some activities such an outdoor walking club and healthy living discussions.
“We want to attract and retain top talent ... We want people to know we care about you as a human being,” Richmond said. “Our goal is really creating a happier and healthier workplace ... We want people to be happy when they are at work and happy when they leave work.”
School Spotlight: Adventures in learning, inside and outside the classroom
Each Monday, the Wisconsin State Journal features a story about learning in Wisconsin. You can find all the School Spotlight stories from 2021 here.
The trees and the vista just beyond the school forest could be preserved under current plans for the North Side subdivision
A field trip to a Wisconsin Dells water park was cut short when a thunderstorm rolled in, giving campers another water-themed lesson.
The camp at Madison Community Montessori School in Middleton was designed to pique students' interests and explore language, math and science.
Glitter became dragon scales, and dish soap was worm guts.
Harbor launched 12 weeks of summer camps that take advantage of the athletic club and also bring in educational elements, with themes such as summer Olympics, recycling and carnival.
Madison School & Community Recreation, Madison Parks and the Madison Reading Project are bringing free, accessible recreation to the city's neighborhoods through the Mobile Madison program.
Greathead showed up at an end-of-the-year party wearing a skirt decorated with rainbows her students drew with fabric markers.
Signs on the Eagle School trail identify species through the characteristics of leaves, fruit and bark, explain why leaves change color in the fall, and discuss oak savanna restoration.
The school began in a church basement in 2005.
Children learn a new language while engaging in hands-on activities such as arts and crafts, storytelling, music and movement and dance.
Marilyn Ruffin founded the Sun Prairie BEAM Awards to shine a light on the positive examples of Black excellence and achievement in the community.
A $13,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation will help expose middle-schoolers to careers in manufacturing and technology.
The school celebrates the passage of seasons through art, music and story to strengthen a connection to the rhythms of nature.
“It’s really nice we get to go outside and do nice things for people,” said freshman James Bradley.
Keena Schroeder's cheesecakes have raise $1,000 for the Sun Prairie School District’s Hunger Hero Campaign to pay down outstanding balances for students' lunches.
“I have very few (curriculum areas) that teach reading, writing and critical thought better than hip-hop,” said social studies teacher Andy Hartman. “It lends itself to kids who typically don’t engage in schools.”
Once Monona Terrace was secured for rehearsal space, the “Percussion Extravaganza” concert was recorded, and it will be available online at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Drotzer's Polish bantam chicken earned her a grand champion award at the Jefferson County Fair, where her drake was a reserve champion.
The program combines academic and technical classroom instruction with mentored on-the-job learning.
Social workers in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District sprang into action to get essentials like toilet paper to families in need.
Edgewood Campus School teacher Kim VanBrocklin has been using brain-based learning initiatives in her teaching for nearly two decades.
“Daphne is a force to be reckoned with,” said Leah Williams, science teacher and adviser for the school's Green Team at Middleton High School.
Students were asked to grab a makeshift drum and play along or dance or do both as they watched an online video performance at home.
Olbrich's Rainforest Rhythms celebrates cultures from tropical and sub-tropical rainforest regions through dance and music.
The program serves disconnected, low-income young people ages 16 to 24 in Dane County and guides them toward self-sufficiency through mentoring, education and employment training.
A $1,115 grant from Friends of MSCR grant was used to buy winter clothing, such as snow pants and gloves, and play equipment, including sleds and tools to build igloos.
Sophia De Oliveira and brother Nickolas De Oliveira created Project Empower's Lung Model Kit to help children understand the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Middleton High School hockey season was canceled because of COVID-19, team members built two rinks at Penni Klein Park.
In Kathy Nieber-Lathrop's “Gingko Finds Her Forever Home,” a girl who is adopted sets off on an adventure to find her Chinese tree an earthen home.