Childhood obesity has been rampant across the country for the past decade but an Ahwatukee Foothills' program is fighting the trend from spreading across the Valley.

The WiL Power Challenge is a free, 12-week program designed to fight childhood obesity by providing tools and education about nutrition and fitness to overweight children and their families.

Since its start in 2008, the program has serviced nearly 300 children across the Valley. Each cycle of the program has about 50 participants.

The program, operated out of Foothills Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, represents its mission in its name. The "WiL" stands for "winning is losing."

WiL Power includes three supervised workouts every week with a trainer, as well as weekly nutrition classes with a registered dietitian or nutritionist. It is also modeled as a contest where winners, based on participation and percentage of inches lost from their waist, can receive prizes and scholarships of $1,000, $500 or $250.

A doctor's referral stating that the child is overweight or obese is needed for a child to participate in the program.

Participants typically range in age from 10 to 14 years old and are in at least the 85th body mass index percentile, meaning from moderately overweight to obese.

Karen Johnson is the board president of WiL Power. She got involved after working in marketing for Foothills Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and Foothills Acceleration and Sports Training, or FAST. Both organizations are sponsors of WiL Power.

The 24-year-old said she has stayed involved with WiL Power because of the "amazing" impact it has on the participants and their families.

"It is truly an incredible thing to hear some of the stories of the families involved in our program and even greater to hear the follow up after they complete the program and continue on with the changes we encouraged them to make," Johnson said.

She noted that it is common to get around 200 referrals from physicians of children in need of WiL Power's services.

"We want to educate children and their families on ways to live healthy, active lifestyles in a fun and affordable way - ultimately decreasing the incidence of childhood obesity," Johnson said of WiL Power's goals.

She added that the program is continuing to grow as it spreads to schools and is to be implemented as an after-school program.

Kris Panigua is 11-year-old Maya Paniagua's mother. Maya is a current participant in the program. Her starting body mass index was around the 92nd percentile.

"At the beginning of WiL Power she could only run continuously for about one minute without needing to stop. Now at the eight-week point she can run about a mile-and-a-half continuously, then do 30 minutes of strength work immediately following. There has been a huge increase in her confidence and physical stamina," Panigua said.

The 38-year-old added that the program has inspired her daughter to be more conscious about healthful decisions for herself and her family.

"Maya has taken steps to make a lifelong change in her eating habits and is developing a healthy lifestyle," Panigua said. "She has seen improvement in her physical fitness level and she is now seeing herself as someone who can be physically strong."

In addition to Maya's improvement, Panigua said the program has benefited the rest of her family, especially her younger son who has lost a pant size during the course of Maya's involvement with WiL Power.

"Our whole family is now eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein as the main components of our diet," Panigua said.

She called the program overall a "truly amazing experience."

"It's a very fun and positive environment and the trainers push the kids to bring out the best in each child," Panigua said. "It's a big commitment for a family to make and it requires you to think of long-term changes, but it is definitely worth it."

Jeff Bloom is the facility manager at FAST, he coordinates all of the trainers and trains the children involved with WiL Power in Ahwatukee.

"We've had great success with this program over the years. There have been multiple kids that have lost 15-plus pounds and there have been a few that have lost over 20 pounds," Bloom said. "The thing we're most proud of is that most of these families keep working out and eating healthy even after the program is over."

The 32-year-old said that because physical education programs are being cut at schools across the country, kids have been much less active than in the past. He said WiL Power gives children the solution to this problem.

"Our program is not only ‘helping children shape their lives,'" Johnson said. "We are literally changing lives and it is a great thing to be involved with."

• Jessica Mayer is a student at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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