It’s no coincidence that Billy Smale’s work with the provincial organization APPLE Schools combined physical activity, healthy eating and positive mental health. The importance of the first two are well known, but their impact on a child’s mental state can be just as significant. “One of the biggest concerns you hear from teachers now is that their kids are really stressed, and they don’t have the coping skills to handle what life throws at them,” Billy says. “When you’re more active, and eating better, then you can learn better.”
An athlete from a young age, and later a coach and personal trainer, Billy has witnessed the decline in kids’ overall physical activity levels firsthand. When he worked in schools, from 2007 to 2012, he spent a lot of time trying to reconnect children to the very basic elements of play. “We had to do all of this programming around teaching kids how to actually play in a playground,” he remembers. “Kids don’t intrinsically know how to play soccer or tag. You have to be taught.” And when the older students aren’t carrying on that oral tradition, Billy says, kids often end up just roughhousing with each other instead — a poor substitute.
Billy’s engagement in his community extends to volunteer work with groups like the Edmonton Food Council. He’s always trying to solicit feedback from those around him, get others onboard and create sustainability for the projects he backs — which are all skills that date back to his work in the school. “In order to make the kinds of changes that I needed to make, you really have to have your stakeholders involved,” he says. “You’re trying to do something that will affect your entire student population, and their families, and the staff.”