Retired teacher joins basketball great in fight against obesity

Today’s youth could easily become the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. Alarmed by what she’s seen in the classroom, retired teacher, Esther Jones, has teamed up with basketball great, Phil Ford, to fight the childhood obesity epidemic through research.

Though retired from her decades-long teaching career, 72-year-old Esther Jones continues to substitute teach. It’s an activity that has given the Durham native an up-close look at nation’s burgeoning childhood obesity epidemic.

“I see how the kids drink soda like its water,” says Jones, herself a competitive ballroom dancer and the picture of physical fitness. “They bring fast food into my classroom, bags of really unhealthy food. Many of them aren’t physically active. I truly worry what they’re doing to themselves.”

Jones isn’t alone in her concern. University of North Carolina basketball legend, Phil Ford, has seen overweight and obesity among participants in his basketball camp for rising eighth graders. One teen in particular made an impression on him.

“We were leading different activities, and this one young man, he couldn’t do the figure eights,” recalls Ford, the 1978 NCAA national player of the year. “The ball wouldn’t fit between his legs because of his size.”

The plight of that 14-year-old boy moved Ford to act. A Google search led him to discover a wealth of childhood obesity research being led by Eliana Perrin, MD, MPH, at his alma mater. He arranged to meet Perrin and learn more. The pair collaborated over two years to develop a plan, and this past March, Ford announced a formalized partnership with UNC Children’s. His foundation will raise money to establish a research center for childhood obesity at UNC.

When Jones met Ford and learned of his commitment, it cemented in her mind that she, too, could help.

“The problem seems so big; what do you do?” says Jones. “I saw I was being given the opportunity to do something great.”

Jones soon committed $1.4 million estate gift to UNC Children’s, establishing the Phil Ford Foundation Distinguished Professorship of Pediatrics, which will support the future research center.

Dr. Perrin, a general pediatrician by practice, is leading efforts at UNC. She cites North Carolina as having the fifth-highest obesity rate in the nation and points to lack of physical activity opportunities and America’s “toxic food environment” as primary causes.

“The young are surrounded by calorie dense, nutrient poor food options, which are also cheaper than healthier choices,” says Perrin. “This makes healthy choices, which should be the default, the harder choices to make.”

Perrin says she hopes Jones’ generosity will inspire others to give.  

“Today’s youth is on a trajectory to becoming the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents,” adds Perrin. “Our team is doing all kinds of research to determine how children can be immunized against unhealthy influences and develop healthy habits that last a lifetime. With additional supporters like Phil and Ms. Jones, we can make this center a reality and do so much more.”

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