In her 40 years as a high school physical education teacher, Nancy Hopkins has witnessed up close what the rest of the country has seen as broad trends: increased rates of childhood and teenage obesity and declining physical activity, as kids stare into their computers and cell phones and hang out by the vending machines. She has watched as phys-ed classes and outdoor activities have been cut from schools, to the point where, she says, “You can go through high school and never step foot in a gym.”
Hopkins wanted to change all that – at least in her own corner of Free State High School, in Lawrence, Kansas. Hopkins set out to transform a junky storage room for old phys-ed equipment into a cardiovascular fitness center that all students could use. “I wanted to get people into the habit of exercising, to make it a lifelong thing for them.”
She tried soliciting contributions for new exercise equipment from her school and the district, but found that most athletic funds were earmarked for the football team. So she turned to former members of the volleyball team she coaches, along with their parents, and asked for donations. When a new principal, Ed West, came to Free State in 2008, he was impressed with how much Hopkins had raised on her own ($30,000), and he found an additional $25,000 that he could allocate toward renovating the storage room.
“When she came to me with her vision, I was very excited because it was mine at a previous school,” West says. “She already had a good running start.”
The funds proved enough to paint and renovate the room and fill it with a few treadmills, shiny yellow stationery bikes, a Stairmaster and an elliptical machine. Hopkins could begin holding some classes there, but there was nowhere near enough equipment to meet the needs of a high school with 1,500 students. Hopkins needed to raise another $100,000 to fill the room with enough equipment for 30 kids at a time.
She then decided to reach out to the wider world – to celebrities, authors and sports figures – and ask them to donate autographed photos, books and other items for fundraiser auctions. Some years earlier, while running an event to raise awareness about steroids and drug use among athletes, she’d had some success convincing local sports figures to donate autographed items for auction. So she thought she’d try it again, on a broader scale. As she says, “The worst they could say was ‘no.’”
A few weeks after she began sending out letters and emails, she opened her first pile of mail. In it was an iPod from Yoko Ono, engraved with “Imagine Peace,” along with a photo of Ono and John Lennon, signed by Ono. “I was floored,” Hopkins says. “It made me think this dream of mine was possible.”
The mail kept coming. Hopkins’ small phys-ed office is now crowded with piles of Hollywood memorabilia and stacks of first-edition autographed books, in addition to the usual volleyballs, trophies, orange cones and boxes of team sweatshirts that can accumulate in a coach’s domain. She has signed photos from former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tennis legend Steffi Graf, golf star Tiger Woods and actors Denzel Washington, Bridget Bardot and Jim Carrey, among many others. In one corner of her office is a football autographed by Joe Namath.
For a couple of years Hopkins pursued her donations as a moonlighting job. She’d come home after coaching and go online to track down celebrities or authors. “I have good research skills,” she says. “If I hit a dead end with someone, I would just set out in another direction.” What she realized, she says, is that extraordinary people are often happy to help with an ordinary problem. “I was overwhelmed by the response.” At last count, Hopkins had collected 700 autographed books from authors, including a complete set of children’s books from Jamie Lee Curtis, and autobiographies signed by Andre Agassi and Andrea Bocelli. She has hundreds of autographed photos of actors and sports figures, as well as random autographed tennis shoes, musical instruments and Matchbox cars. All the items will be auctioned this spring, and she is accepting bids online at her website.
Hopkins is confident that she’ll raise enough funds to finish furnishing the cardiovascular room – and then she’s on to the weight room, where, she says, equipment has not been replaced in the 15 years since the school opened.
Hopkins’ favorite donations are those that come through connections with her former students. One young woman on her volleyball team went on to play in a female band in New York City, where she became friendly with Bruce Springsteen. When the former student came back to Kansas for law school, Hopkins persuaded her to coach an after-school team – and to help reach out for donations for the cardio room. “Now I have a signed drumhead from Bruce Springsteen,” she says. “That’s cool.”
Already, students tell Hopkins that they love the cardio room, and she has seen a noticeable difference. A few have lost weight and given up smoking; others who never went out for team sports have taken a strong interest in working out.
“I had a girl in my cardio class just today tell me she was glad to have the room, and that lifelong exercise was offered as a class because it really helped her with her depression,” she says. Exercise is vital in helping to improve kids’ self-esteem, body image and emotional well-being. The student’s remark particularly touched Hopkins because, she says, two former Free State High School students had committed suicide in the past two months. “We know that exercise is one of the best treatments for depression – and it’s free,” she says. Free, except for the equipment.
Hopkins, now 60, hopes to instill in the students the love of physical activity she had when she was their age – and which, she says, has made her feel happy and healthy her whole life. “When I was a kid, I was never inside. I was always out playing tennis, running around the neighborhood or riding my bicycle.” Kids just don’t grow up that way any more, she says, and she thinks it’s important for students to discover the pleasures of physical activity in a non-competitive environment. Over the years, Hopkins adds, student athletes have gotten into better shape, and school districts have poured money into competitive sports. High-school athletes are in much better shape than they ever were – while the rest of the kids are left behind, without even an occasional phys-ed class to get them moving during the day.
Hopkins has started teaching several classes in the new cardio room, including individualized classes where she works with students like a personal trainer, defining fitness goals for them and helping to achieve them through weight training and cardio-machine exercises. Students in team sports often stop playing after high school or college. In contrast, Hopkins says, “This is a way of working out that they can build on and continue with throughout their adult lives.” She also teaches a spinning class after-hours for the teachers, on her own time. “They need the exercise at least as much as the students.”
In 2010, Hopkins was recognized by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for her work as a physical-fitness advocate, and was awarded a silver medal in a national contest. She also won $750 for the school and $250 for herself, all of which she put towards exercise equipment.
While Hopkins has been surprised by the volume of responses she has received from celebrities for her little project in the middle of Kansas, she says she never had any doubts that she could reach her goal of renovating the exercise room to help her students get healthier. “I’m the kind of person who, if I see a problem, I try to fix it,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Her next problem? Figuring out where to find the space to stash hundreds of books and celebrity souvenirs until the auction in the spring, so she can navigate her office.
Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map.