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On the Sunday morning before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 11-year-old Kenderick Scorza and his relatives — his mother, his grandmother, his older brother and his brother's three children — crammed into a five-person Nissan Altima and left their home in the city's Ninth Ward. After heading north to Memphis and hearing forecasts of more bad weather there, the family traveled to Cabot. By Tuesday, the levees had broken and the family knew it wasn't going back home.
The Scorzas decided to start over in North Little Rock. Kenderick's mother, Barbara, said it seemed that there was little rhyme or reason to the move beside the desire to stay away from an east-west logjam that awaited refugees going to Houston.
The decision turned out to be a serendipitous one. When the Scorzas arrived in Arkansas, Kenderick, now 13, was greatly overweight, thanks in large part to his indulgence in fried New Orleans fare. His new home offered similar temptations, of course, but Kenderick determined to resist them and change his habits. Now he's parlayed that goal into a gig as one of the two stars of “Let's Just Play Go Healthy Challenge,” a monthly Nickelodeon reality TV program that began in January and documents the kids' attempts to whip themselves into shape.
Even before the show came along, Kenderick had made a conscious effort to adjust to life in Arkansas — a process that was not limited to losing weight. During his first year as a new student at Lakewood Middle School, Kenderick became a member of City Year's Young Heroes program for sixth- through eighth-graders. The program required that Kenderick donate 16 Saturdays a year to community service.
Through a City Year contact, Kenderick heard that Nickelodeon would be coming to the Clinton Presidential Center to conduct screen tests for the program. (The Clinton Foundation is one of the show's sponsors.) When he got the part, it was further impetus for changes he already knew he had to make. “My brother had recently had a stroke,” Kenderick says of his choice to shed weight. “I was thinking if I don't get in shape fast, then I'll end up probably having heart problems just like he does.”
He couldn't have hoped for better results. Under the tutelage of David Bazzel, a former University of Arkansas linebacker and one-time chair of the Arkansas's Governor's Council on Fitness, Kenderick has dropped 36 pounds — down to 180 from 216 in March.
On Saturday, Aug. 11, Kenderick will be one of around 300 participants in the Conway Kids Triathlon — a 100-yard swim, 4-mile bike ride, and 1-mile run — an impressive feat for someone who could neither swim nor ride a bike a year ago. Nickelodeon's cameras will be there to film him for the show's last episode, which will air in September.
Kenderick is perhaps not so much a small-screen star as a poster child for well-being. The Nickelodeon program is less pure entertainment than a conscious effort to bring attention to the problem of teen obesity. That's not to say that being a newly-minted television personality doesn't have its perks — or its added levels of bureaucracy — it's the rare middle-schooler who has a publicist screening who he talks to). In April, Kendrick appeared on the Rachel Ray show with former President Bill Clinton. He received training from Olympic swimmer John Hargis.
Kenderick's mother says she can see the effect that the show has had on Kenderick mentally as well as physically. For one of the Nickelodeon episodes Kenderick had to break a 15-pound block using karate techniques. Although he was already familiar with martial arts — he's on track to get his black belt within the next year — this was a challenge that his previous experience had not prepared him for.
“He didn't succeed on the first try,” Scorza said. “Kenderick for the most part was a kid who would look for direction. If things didn't go right, he was ready to bail. Six months ago, had he not broken it the first time, he would have been ready to go. But he didn't look for anyone; he just kept at it.” (He broke the block on his fourth attempt.)
Kenderick hasn't been the only Scorza who has seen a change in his health for the better in the past few years. His weight loss requires a commitment by his mother — she's the one who feeds him after all — and she's changed her cooking habits. She, too, has developed an exercise program and lost weight. Kenderick's older brother, who suffered two heart attacks and a stroke since coming to Arkansas, has dropped 20 pounds in recent months.
While the Conway triathlon will mark the end of Nickelodeon's taping — and of the motivation that performing for the camera brings — Kenderick intends to keep up his routine until he gets his weight and fitness level where he wants it to be. He doesn't envision going out for team sports any time soon, but he's taken a liking to weightlifting, and he still has that black belt to work toward. “I just want to do the same thing that I'm doing now — running almost every day, swimming every day that I get the chance, biking every now and then,” he says of his future plans. “I just want to keep this up until I get to my desired weight.”
Even if he slides, though — not that he has any intention to — Kenderick's stint on Nickelodeon's show has taught him that he can get fit if he puts his mind to it. “What everyone should know,” he says, “is that it's never too late to take the challenge.”