Fitness and health coach Matt Crane partners with the Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s of Alabama to champion health for kids struggling with obesity.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
A nurse clinician in the Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s of Alabama, Beverly Haynes, RN, works every day with children who are struggling with weight problems. She knows all too well the difficulties these patients and their families face. “There are all sorts of obstacles in their path toward getting healthier,” Haynes explains, “from the communities where they live to family relationships to how their bodies are made.” And the stakes are high. According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood and teenage obesity can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea. Moreover, the stigma of being overweight invariably takes a psychological toll—something Haynes and the rest of the clinic staff treat very seriously. “Obesity is now the last acceptable form of discrimination,” she says.
Matt Crane, a certified personal trainer and owner of L.I.F.E. Fitness, understands this on a deeply personal level. “To be honest, growing up, I was overweight myself,” explains Crane. “I remember how it felt. I wasn’t a miserable kid, and I had great friends, but internally I remember the struggle with self-esteem. That’s always stuck with me.”
Today in excellent shape with a level of energy exemplified by his nickname, “the HurriCrane,” Crane left a job in banking several years ago to follow his dream of helping others who struggled with healthy living and body image. Along with providing one-on-one training to adult clients of all body types, early on in his new career he also started brainstorming ways to help overweight children.
His search led him to the Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s of Alabama, where he respected the work being done to help children and adolescents not only manage their weight and avoid future complications, but also deal with psychosocial issues like peer teasing and low self-esteem. Moreover, he understands that the clinic serves a need that is often misunderstood and minimized. “Obesity is a huge issue in Alabama, and it often starts in childhood,” Crane says. “But I think people often see it as a personal problem rather than an important issue. In reality, there are so many different layers: it can be socioeconomic, with families who are living in difficult situations—the money’s not there; they’re in areas where it’s not safe to go out on the playground and play; they may not have access to the same healthy foods you and I do. So it’s not just making bad choices.”
Boasting a comprehensive, family-centered approach to weight management, the center includes pediatricians, nurses, nurse practitioners, dieticians, physical therapists, and psychologists. Crane personally volunteers to visit with the patients and offers encouragement, but he also knows that the top-notch care, programs, and services that the center offers cost money—and he wanted to find a way to raise funds in addition to giving his time.
So Crane approached Children’s with his idea for a fundraiser—now going on its third year—to host on the center’s behalf. “In 2011, I went and said, ‘I’m not asking you to do anything. I just want to raise some money to help these kids, because this is what I’m really passionate about.’” The hospital readily agreed, and Crane began to lay the groundwork, knocking on doors for help. He says the response was humbling. “I think when people see that you’re really putting your heart and soul into something, they can get behind it, so it was really cool to see the community rally around it.”
Event designer Christopher Confero—who had designed Crane’s wedding in 2014—was among the first people he approached. Confero says Crane’s enthusiasm sold him immediately. “He shared his vision, and of course I was on board to help bring that to life,” explains Confero, who, as it happens, also faced weight issues including an eating disorder earlier in his life. He is also a client of Crane’s and credits him with helping him develop a healthier lifestyle. “I was very happy to give whatever I could, pulling together some of my creative partners, calling in some favors, and asking people to give to a cause that I knew meant a lot to Matt and also myself.”
Crane, meanwhile, decided early on that the event needed a hook—a tangible way to demonstrate the changes a person struggling with weight can achieve with help. In a nomination-and-vote process via Facebook, one candidate would be chosen to receive several months of free, one-on-one coaching with Crane. Their progress would be documented by video—shown at the fundraiser, which came be known as the New Year, New You Reveal Party—followed by a glamorous entrance by the winner him or herself.
The first winner was Marie Wilbanks, nominated by her boss at the time, who was also one of Crane’s clients. “My boss came to me one day at work and said, ‘Hey would you be interested in doing this?’” remembers Marie, who says she’s struggled with weight for as long as she can remember in spite of being relatively active. “I’m just not a person that’s naturally in shape.” Having a child and adapting to the new demands of parenthood had added to her challenges, so when she ultimately won the contest, she welcomed the opportunity.
Wilbanks—whose husband participated vicariously through her, adopting lifestyle changes alongside his wife to get healthier himself—stresses that although she ended up losing 65 pounds, “With Matt, it’s not about the number but how you can change your lifestyle. How did I feel? How did I look at myself? At the end of the day, those are the important things we focused on.” She says in addition to continuing with the changes Crane helped her make, she’s also trying to pass along her healthier mindset to her son.
The current winner, who will be “revealed” in person at this year’s event Thursday, July 30, at Iron City Birmingham, is Elizabeth Aldridge. Aldridge, who says she felt motivated to get in shape by the arrival of a new grandbaby, calls Crane “the most passionate individual about helping people I’ve ever met.” She has three official sessions with Matt each week, but he’s also come along for encouragement when she decided to run a 5K and even joined her for her favorite Zumba dance class.
Aldridge adds that she feels motivated not only for herself but for the cause that Crane has embraced—helping children with their own weight struggles. “Matt is all about getting me into shape physically and emotionally,” she says, “but the end result will also be to help the Children’s Center for Weight Management. I think this is an awesome way to bring awareness to that.”
Cayleigh Cummings, community development coordinator for Children’s, echoes the value of the awareness that Crane brings about through his efforts. “We find that services like our weight-management program are not on the top of people’s minds when they think about a children’s hospital, but they serve such an important need,” she says. “Matt has brought great awareness to the center, services, doctors, and everyone who’s working hard to help these children every day.”
To raise money for educational and morale-building programs, it’s hard to imagine—based on the effusive praise of his partners, clients, and people he’s worked with at Children’s—a better cheerleader than Crane. “The success of the fundraiser all really stems from Matt,” Confero says. “His positive energy sets the tone. Some nonprofit events can feel a little stuffy, but this one is high energy, from the excitement of the families to the people who want to see the transformation…everyone is so excited about raising money for the clinic.”
Adds Crane, “It’s kind of like a domino effect. The way it’s all grown, it’s just been amazing to be part of it.”
Date: July 30, 6–9 p.m.
Place: Iron City
Cost: $20 in advance; $25 the night of the event
Benefits: The Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s of Alabama