By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Nico Popeleski holds up a pair of cardboard figures about as big as he is and points to a cloud of paper labels stuck all over each one.
The first, nicknamed the “Unhealthy Villain,” clearly has some problems. He doesn’t get enough sleep. He eats badly. He probably doesn’t say “no” to alcohol or drugs like he should.
His cousin, the “Healthy Hero,” is just the opposite. He loves to exercise, eat fruits and veggies, and get eight hours of snoozing in each night.
Nico, a sixth-grader at Iroquois Middle School, is one of four boys who helped found a brand-new club called EPIC, or Empowering Peers, Inspiring Change.
The other three founders were Bryce Popeleski (Nico’s brother), Lucas Michalisin, and Tim Burgess. Their ranks have more than doubled, but the founding four are especially proud of what they helped start.
“Sleep is a great way of being healthy,” Bryce said, pointing to a label on the Healthy Hero figure. “It gives you a lot of energy.
“You’ve got to stay away from stuff that doesn’t make you feel good,” he added.
Though just freshly out of elementary school, Nico, for one, is obviously a budding health nut — and proud of it. He talks about losing 20 pounds over the past couple of years and joining a sports team for the first time, and about his hopes of helping other students attain healthier lifestyles, just like he has.
“You’ve got to stand up,” he said. “We’re standing out.”
For the most part, the kids at EPIC talk about health in positive terms, rather than focusing on avoidance of drugs, alcohol and other unhealthy habits. But occasionally, the temptations that come with growing up become the topic of discussion.
“Some of my friends that I play lacrosse with have gotten into drugs,” said Lucas, a seventh grader. “They asked me and I said no.”
In addition to simply encouraging healthy habits in middle school students, EPIC is also considered a feeder club for the high school’s SAPE, Students Advocating Positive Environments. The grown-ups who work behind the scenes hope the connection between the two will help keep students on the straight and narrow even after transitioning to high school.
EPIC advisor Jaqueline Giaccone, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade math at Iroquois, used to run a different drug-free club called Youth to Youth. But she enjoys the looser focus of EPIC, which lets kids explore a wider variety of factors that affect their health.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to give kids an opportunity to discover themselves,” she said.
She runs the activities and sets the meetings, but Giaccone knows the most effective part of the experience is helping make sure the youngest in the group have seventh- and eighth-graders, and even high school students, to look up to.
“What’s really nice is to have the older role models,” she said.
A recent group outing illustrated the spirit of fun that the students in EPIC like to spread.
The group’s first field trip, a rock-climbing field trip at The Edge Halfmoon, was an example of the sort of healthy alternatives the club plans to provide for fellow students as its numbers grow. One member, Rachel Mun, said she joined just for the rock climbing after hearing about it on the school announcements, but ended up becoming a dedicated club member.
But the rock-climbing field trip was also an excellent metaphor for the attitude they promote.
“It’s just really fun to climb to the top and have that satisfaction,” eighth-grader Minaal Singh said.
“It just shows you that being healthy doesn’t have to be boring stuff,” said classmate Parker Stygles.