It was a garden party of epic proportions at Pleasant Hill Elementary School on Tuesday as third-grade teacher Todd Willis celebrated the national launch of EVERFI's "Healthier Me" program in the school's outdoor garden.

EVERFI's "Healthier Me" is an innovative digital course that provides students with the tools and resources to make healthy decisions involving health and fitness.

Amid giant sunflowers waving in the wind and the clucking of hens in nearby chicken coops, Willis and his students greeted EVERFI representatives from the suburban Washington, D.C. area along with board members from the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, based in Hernando.

Community Foundation officials presented Willis with two rotary tillers for use in his outdoor garden.

It was the unveiling of the Community Digital Scholars Program at Pleasant Hill Elementary School that brought community leaders and students together.

Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi President and CEO Tom Pittman reminded those present for Tuesday's launch that EVERFI began its digital platform program in DeSoto County in 2011 with 5,000 students and now that effort has reached more than 1.7 million students nationwide.

Pittman said more than seven years ago, EVERFI developed a program that assisted high school students in being "fiscally healthy" by learning how to manage their finances.

At Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Olive Branch, the emphasis is on helping children become "physically healthy."

"We were the first site for EVERFI," Pittman said, adding the benefactor is an anonymous donor. "He has grown his gift over the years. He lives way off but he thinks Mississippi students should have the critical life skills to enjoy a good quality of life."

Willis said the school garden has allowed children, especially those who live in urban areas, to experience fresh fruits and vegetables.

"My third-graders grow corn and peas and okra," said Willis. "We were hoping to expand our garden so the kids could expand the crops. We want to have enough where a class can grow an entire meal. One child talked about his grandmother who cooked food. We want that community involvement with kids and how they cook at home."

Willis said the Community Foundation's gift of garden implements will greatly enhance the gardening experience for the students.

"One of the things we were needing in our garden are the tools to expand it," Willis said. "The gift of $1,000 worth of gardening tools by the Community Foundation will certainly help us toward that goal."

While gardening is going on outside the classroom by students digging in the earth, those same students are "digging" into new technology through EVERFI's "Healthier Me" interactive program.

Madelyn Murphy, Director of K-12 programs at EVERFI, said EVERFI is hoping that students can "make the connection to fitness with healthy eating patterns."

"The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi is one of EVERFI's original partners," Murphy said. "They are helping to improve the lives of children in their community."

The way the interactive digital course works, "gamified" activities reinforce key learning objectives in nutrition and fitness. Course topics include making healthy food choices and eating well-balanced meals along with enjoying the benefits of physical activity.

The fun nutritional digital format is geared toward students in grades 1-4.

Pleasant Hill Elementary School Principal Jamie Loper said the EVERFI program will continue to pay dividends for years to come.

"They are learning to be a better steward for the environment," Loper said. "They learn about responsibility. They have an opportunity to turn their English and math lessons into applications for staying healthy. They even learn about history."

Both Willis and Loper incorporated the fact that George Washington's garden at Mount Vernon not only fed a large number of people but factored into the American Revolution because he encountered high taxes on his tobacco, so much so that he could no longer grow tobacco and earn a profit.

"It's just phenomenal all that they can learn through this program," Loper said.

Former Hernando mayor and current Regional Health Council member Chip Johnson was invited to take part in the festivities. Largely through Johnson's efforts, the DeSoto County seat was named as "Mississippi's Healthiest Hometown." Johnson was also invited to the White House to take part in former First Lady Michelle Obama's health and fitness efforts.

"We've always got to be training the next generation to get on the right path in life," Johnson said. "I want to thank the Community Foundation for their leadership over the past 20 years. This is one of the best school gardens in the nation, I would say."

DeSoto County Schools Superintendent Cory Uselton also thanked CFNM for their leadership in improving the quality of life for DeSoto County students.

"Looking back, I remember when we started this (EVERFI partnership) at DeSoto Central High School where I was principal," Uselton said. "When Mr. Pittman introduced us to EVERFI, I was impressed with what they were doing to improve educational opportunities for our students. It's been a great partnership with the Community Foundation. It's been a model for other teachers, other schools, and other classrooms. Other schools have inquired about it."

EVERFI, Inc. is the nation's leading technology company that provides learners of all ages education for the real world through innovative digital learning. Some of America's leading CEO's and venture capital firms are EVERFI investors such as Aamzon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Twitter founder Evan Williams.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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