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Heber Valley program encourages kids to ‘unplug’ and get outside

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HEBER CITY — A program sparked by one man’s idea to improve kids' lifestyles has motivated an entire community to “unplug.”

Heber Valley Unplugged: Turn Life On Challenge began May 24, just in time for schoolchildren to start planning their summer activities. Today, many parents are thanking the masterminds of the program for encouraging their children to turn off their electronic entertainment devices and get involved in more active activities.

The idea began with Heber City Councilman Erik Rowland.

“The merit to this program and what it can provide is invaluable,” Rowland said. “We feel that parents are struggling everywhere."

Kids who used to go outside and play instead are "just grabbing their iPads, tablets and iPhones," he said.

"There’s a genuine sense from a lot of people that we’ve oversaturated ourselves with being plugged in, and we’re losing that sense of play,” Rowland said.

The challenge aims to engage students from elementary to high school ages in a competition for the most active summer by participating in 101 “brag-tag” activities throughout Heber Valley.

For each activity completed, students earn points for better chances to win $100 from the challenge’s weekly drawings. Kids are also given lanyards to show off their “brag-tags.”

Activities include washing cars, roasting marshmallows, stargazing, riding the Heber Valley Railroad, swimming at Deer Creek and feeding ducks at Wasatch Mountain State Park.

Heber City Police Chief Dave Booth said he assisted the program by speaking with local businesses about buying “brag-tags” and hosting events for participants to attend.

“The thing I like about 'Unplugged' the most is it truly benefits the entire community,” Booth said. “The businesses are happy because people are coming into their businesses, and that’s stimulating the economy. The kids are happy because they’re out having a lot of fun. Law enforcement is happy because … we’re making our society safer by providing healthy things for our kids to be doing.”

Rachel Kahler, marketing and events manager for Heber Valley Tourism and Economic Development, said the challenge has been a success and has surpassed expectations.

Last week 5,500 "Unplugged" lanyards were passed out and more than 200 kids entered in the $100 drawing. In addition, more than 70 violent video games were turned in for the “Game Slayer Tag,” which Rowland said was the program’s “benchmark for success.”

“To be honest, we never expected it would be as popular as it’s become,” Rowland said. “It’s been really neat to see a community come together to show that support and to see kids do things I never thought they would do, like turn in their video games.”

He said the program has been a success because it has encouraged kids to be active in a fun way instead of discouraging them from entertainment they’ve grown to enjoy.

“Presenting a program that was based on what you can’t do wasn’t going to be very well received,” Rowland said. “The models that work are the ones that provide incentive and focus on things you should be doing rather than the things you shouldn’t be doing.”

The program is funded by the Heber City Council and donations from Intermountain Healthcare and the Heber Valley Rotary Club, Kahler said. Businesses purchasing lanyards also keeps the program thriving, she said.

Ashley Wall, a mother of four children participating in the challenge, said her kids "have been excited about it from the get-go.”

Wall said she’s seen the program’s benefits in her own family, as well as in the community. While taking her children across the valley to collect their “brag tags,” she’s connected with other members of the community.

“It’s good because it’s gotten the family to do things together, introduced us to new things and helped us to do things that we should be doing anyway,” Wall said. “When I said to them this morning, ‘Let's go and do some tags,’ they all ran and found their tags, and they were just so excited to go together.”

Rowland said the idea to create the program was ignited by his own response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where six adults and 20 children were killed. Based on personal research concerning the matter, he recognized a need to address the effects media violence exposure has on children, he said.

“If you’re going to address violence, you need to start in the home,” Rowland said. “How we raise our kids and what we introduce them to when they’re young really influences and affects them as they grow.”

The program’s ultimate goal, he said, is to reduce violence in schools and the community by promoting healthy lifestyles for children and limiting their exposure to media violence.

As a father of three, Rowland said he'd started to notice an electronic addiction in his own family.

“It kind of starts from a parent’s gut feeling that something doesn’t seem right when your kids are playing violent video games,” he said.

Prompted by his intuition, he said he began collecting research — specifically concerning video game violence — to support the program’s incentive. Rowland’s research is available at the challenge’s website, along with more information about how to participate.

Rowland said he hopes to help establish the program across other communities. And people outside the Heber Valley are more than welcome to participate in the Unplugged Challenge, he said.

“I really do hope others will see the program, want to be involved, and let us help them start it,” Rowland said.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com