The fact that his Uncle Michael died suddenly of a heart attack the day after his 45th birthday in August 2012 made Laurence Bellew think hard about health. When he read that obesity and mental health are the two biggest problems facing children on the island of Ireland he decided to do something about it.
Laurence, who is the Kids and Youth Coordinator at Willowfield Parish Community Association, has developed Life Guards, a programme funded by Heart Research UK which aims to tackle both problems head on. The 6 to 8 week programme, which consists of a mix of interactive workshops and fitness lessons, seeks to teach kids skills to look after their hearts physically and emotionally. Like Lifeguards at a swimming pool or beach have skills to save the lives of others and take responsibility for situations, the programme aims to teach kids skills to save their own lives by taking responsibility for their own health.
In May this year, the Lifeguards Healthy Heart Programme launched in its 44th school. Laurence shares his journey and his vision below:
Serving physical and emotional needs
During a talk by a preacher called Malcolm Duncan, he reminded me that down through the years the church has existed not just to serve the spiritual needs of the community but the physical and emotional needs too. Whether through hospitals, schools or even the abolition of slavery, the church stepped up. I really felt God call me that night to step up and instead of letting the loss of my Uncle make me bitter, decide to let it make me better. He put Proverbs 4:23 on my heart which says ‘Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life’. This is the verse God would use to inspire the creation of Life Guards.
Growing up my god was football. It was how I stayed fit, where I found my purpose and how I coped with the stress of being in and out of foster care throughout my secondary school years due to my Mum’s ill health. I gave my life fully to Christ in the summer after I left Secondary School and in the few years following found myself in the weird position of being in good health spiritually, but not so good physically and emotionally as I stopped playing football when I left school. It was well with my soul but not with my body and mind. In my final year of university I even had to register with Disability Services because I was being crippled by stress during exam periods. We talk about giving to God from our first and our best when it comes to money but the same should be for our time and energy. If we for example are always lethargic from a poor diet and lack of exercise, are we really serving God with our best? During this period, I wasn’t being the best version of me.
I have since turned my own health around as well as training to be a Fitness Instructor for Kids and a Personal Trainer which has helped me to design the Life Guards programme. My experience has led me to believe so strongly that if a church only exists to meet the spiritual needs of the community we miss the heart of God. I feel we are called to serve the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the communities God has placed us in. These will all be different depending on where God has placed us. Just as we are called to stand in the gap in prayer, we can also fill gaps that we see are being left by society.
Caring for Children’s health
Life Guards has helped us stand in the gap for our community, city and further afield when it comes to children’s health. A study by the RCPCH stated that ‘Child health outcomes in Northern Ireland are amongst the poorest in Western Europe. Levels of childhood obesity remain high, mental health issues continue to cause concern’. Since launching in 2015, Life Guards has opened up the opportunity to work with over 7000 kids across Northern Ireland sharing with them the importance of looking after their hearts physically and emotionally. As well as delivering in Primary Schools, we have also had the privilege of working in Special Education Needs Schools as well as lots of church and community groups. This has also helped us open up a conversation about our spiritual health as well as we remind each child that they are ‘very important people, with value, identity and purpose’.
One teacher wrote the following on their evaluation ‘ This programme has had the most positive impact on pupils that I have witnessed in over 20 years of teaching. Pupils, teachers and parents were all very enthused and motivated by this Life Guard programme. Laurence and Luke were the most incredible instructors.’
I’m definitely not saying every church must have a programme like Life Guards or start a kids gym. It could be something as simple as getting a group to do your local park run every Saturday or organising mountain walks. As Theodore Roosevelt says, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’.
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette.