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Cross-country cyclist addresses obesity ‘from inside out’

BRADENTON -- When he encountered his 12-year-old cousins playing video games at 4 in the afternoon, Teddy Herrera decided he would bicycle across America to raise awareness about childhood obesity.

Herrera succeeded not only in reaching out to 100,000 children nationwide, he also inspired his cousins to travel the equivalent of 3,900 miles themselves by riding their bicycles up and down the street in front of their Sacramento home.

The 25-year-old is now on his second cross-country bike tour, and this time Bradenton’s Samoset Elementary was among his stops.

“My hope is to fight childhood obesity from the inside out,” said Herrera, who never once used the word “obesity” or “fat” during his high-energy 45-minute appearance at Samoset. “My goal is to give children the confidence and the motivation to dream big. Because when they realize their full potential, they will do anything they can to be here for years to come.”

Herrera’s inspiration for his treks first came in 2007, when his father died at age 47 from a massive heart attack. The loss sent Herrera backpacking around the world, and it was upon his return that Herrera’s young cousins inspired him to take his first cross-country ride and form the nonprofit organization Across America for Childhood Obesity (AA4CO, for short).

Herrera kept Samoset students engaged in his story by showing slides of his bike tour. Highlights included a 100-mile stretch of Nevada desert that nearly drove him to give up his effort, a Kansas farmhouse where a friendly farmer offered him shelter from a tornado, and an actual roadway on the Gulf Coast of Florida titled “Follow That Dream Parkway.”

Herrera focused his message almost entirely on goal-setting and confidence, encouraging the young crowd to repeat four steps to achieving their dreams: “decide to do it, set goals, believe in yourselves and do it!”

The closest he came to focusing on proper diets was his description of how his first bike tour started: partaking of McDonald’s “$1 menu” because he had no financial support. Herrera told the crowd how he was able to boost his daily progress from 40 miles to more than 100 once he had earned enough financial support to eat a healthy diet based on turkey and whole grains.

Herrera’s visit was especially meaningful to Samoset, where 94 percent of students are on the federal free and reduced lunch program, which means they are considered poverty-stricken and likely have little access to highly nutritious foods, said assistant principal Mike Kelly.

The school has undertaken several steps already to focus on healthy living, Kelly said, including participating in a program that ensures fresh fruits and vegetables are provided every day, retaining physical education classes, and offering a free boot camp to students, staffers and neighborhood parents two afternoons every week.

Herrera’s other main message, offered after his talk to the kids, focused on the importance of making the best effort at personal goals. He said he hasn’t even considered what future career he will pursue because he wants to focus all of his energies on his anti-obesity campaign.

“I’m just totally focused on ‘Plan A,’” he said.

Follow Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, on Twitter @chawesreports, or at www.learningcurve.blogspot.com, or contact her at 941-745-7081.

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