“It all began with my family,” Pierre Thomas said of his iCAN Foundation.
As a lifelong athlete, physical fitness hasn’t been just a desire for New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas, it’s been a necessity. However, he has always been troubled by the obesity he saw in his own family and as he started to see it escalate, he became further concerned.
Thomas, a Chicago native, was always on the go as a child, riding his bike, playing sports or even just outside making up games with his friends. So, as he got older, he became frustrated when he started to see how much time his nephew spent sitting and playing video games rather than being active and playing outside. He spoke to his sister and pressed her to take a stronger stance in getting her son to be more active.
“When you’re overweight you can have a lot of health issues,” Thomas said. “If there’s something I can do about it, I want to do it.”
He partnered with his closest childhood friend, Vince Calabrese (Calabrese said the two met playing “Red Light, Green Light” in kindergarten), a personal trainer who also had experience working with non-profit groups and who has worked closely with Thomas on all of his endeavors since he joined the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007. Thomas calls them “two kids who want to make change in the world.”
“Initially we did a lot of work with different organizations in Louisiana and Chicago,” Calabrese said. “We were raising funds but we never had any say on where the funds go.”
Together they built the iCAN Foundation, which was officially established in 2012 with the purpose of helping to end childhood obesity. Once the foundation was launched, it took off. Then they brought Timmy Doe, a friend they met in New Orleans, into the fold and the three of them work as a team on everything.
“Our kids are supposed to be our future,” Thomas said. “You don’t want to have the type of eating where ‘I’ll give them McDonalds because [it’s easier]’. You’ve got to be disciplined. When they start whining and crying you’ve got say, ‘I’m doing you a favor.’ If they’re not working out and playing they can’t really have that food. Don’t give it to them every day.”
Thomas’ views on discipline came from his own upbringing. He and his sister had rules. They had to be home for dinner and because their mother worked, they learned how to cook. Those lessons and that discipline stuck with him and as an adult, he now appreciates them even more and it’s what he impresses on the children he now works with.
The plan is to make iCAN national, but the bulk of their efforts are currently in Louisiana and Mississippi. “Mississippi is number one in obesity in the United States and Louisiana is number two,” Thomas said. They also have programs in Thomas’ hometown of Chicago.
Their programs are about getting the children actively involved so they understand the importance on a personal level and have a vested interest in what they are doing.
Another friend who Thomas calls “Coach Mike” has spearheaded a project in Chicago. “We have a garden on a rooftop at a Learn Charter school,” Thomas said. “They learn how to grow fruits and vegetables. We’re looking for schools in New Orleans to do the same thing.”
All of their programs involve activities. One such event, based on a show he saw many years ago on Nickelodeon, was in New Orleans, and which was dubbed “Shop with the Saints” to teach children about how to shop for the right foods. The participants were timed as they ran through a grocery store to find the healthiest items as fast as they could.
Thomas also holds football camps, but he didn’t want the foundation to be solely built around football. Even at those camps, he creates events where they have to use their minds to put together puzzles and solve problems so that the children have a full mind and body experience.
Their objective for the foundation includes educating not just the children, but the parents because Thomas wants the parents to be able to reinforce at home what the children have learned. “You’re your child’s biggest role model,” he said. “You’ve got to teach them about what’s right to eat and what’s not right to eat.
“We want to focus on the kids and want to get them going, but, it’s also a message for the parents so they understand,” he continued. “The parents see the kids are interested in what they’re learning and we give the parents information.”
Thomas’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. He was the Saints’ 2013 Man of the Year and a nominee for the annual Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which honors community service.
As for Thomas’ nephew, now a teenager, he’s active, eating healthier and playing football. Just like his uncle.
For more information about the iCAN Foundation, visit www.believeican.org.