ASTORIA — At Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy, yoga mats share the space with history and math textbooks.
With a goal of providing care for the whole child — their bodies, as well as their minds — the academy has opened a wellness center for students to learn how to live healthy and productive lives.
Located in a converted third-floor classroom, the wellness center officially opened on Dec. 17 and has already created a great deal of excitement among students, teachers, and parents.
“It’s cool because I like how we get to learn new stuff — important things to keep you healthy and learning to make your parents healthy,” said Ian Klingman, a third-grader.
The wellness center will give the 205 pre-K to eighth-grade students at the academy the opportunity to practice yoga and learn about physical fitness, good nutrition, health, and hygiene.
On opening day, the children received a visit from Dr. Shikha Kanotra, a pediatric dentist who explained the importance of brushing one’s teeth after every meal and visiting the dentist twice a year for checkups.
Adults will benefit from the wellness center, too. Teachers and parents will be able to use the facility. A schedule of activities is still being worked out, but the preliminary plan calls for the wellness center to function as an educational space for students during school hours and house programs for adults in the evening.
The wellness center will play a valuable role, according to Brother Joseph Rocco, S.C., the academy’s principal.
“We have academics, spiritual formation, and physical formation,” he said. “But we also would like to have kids understand whole wellness about their bodies and have programs where they would appreciate an understanding of hygiene, wellness, nutrition,” he said.
The wellness center, which cost approximately $30,000 — much of which was donated by parents — was conceived and designed by two parents, Dr. Louise Marchini and Laura Knight-Keating. The space has a warm, inviting feel, with a carpet on the floor, desks arranged in a semicircle, walls painted a soothing light yellow, and windows offering a vista of the Manhattan skyline.
Catholics have long been mindful of the importance of health and wellness. There are references in the Bible about maintaining one’s health.
In St. John’s gospel, there is a greeting that reads, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health just as it is well with your soul.”
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, asks: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
It was clear during a visit on Monday that so far, the children are absorbing the lessons. Lynn Lynch, who teaches third grade, asked her students to review what Dr. Kanotra had taught them about oral hygiene. The children talked about the importance of brushing their teeth for a full two minutes and eating vegetables instead of candy, to avoid cavities.
Brother Joseph said the wellness center can also help children ease the stress they are feeling as a result of the uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That feeling of uncertainty is pervasive. Emergency room visits for children ages 5-11 facing a mental health crisis rose 24% between March and October 2020, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. For children ages 12-17, the increase was 31% during the same time period.
Also, another study found one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 19 has experienced some type of mental disorder during the pandemic — with anxiety and depression the leading factors, according to a 2021 report from the World Health Organization.
“We plan to offer programs for the kids — bringing in some specialists to talk about issues and even using this room for relaxation,” Brother Joseph said. “Kids are under a lot of stress and we can offer them activities in which they can relieve that stress.”