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"Healthy Habits" billboard to showcase Mt. Pleasant Area's Michael Sarnelli

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 8:30 p.m.
Cami DiBattista | For The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Michael Sarnelli of Jones Mills was recently selected as the winner from Mt. Pleasant Area School District of an essay contest sponsored by Excela Health. From left are: Jennifer Miele, VP of Marketing and Communication with Excela Health; Michael Sarnelli, Brandon Mikeska, physical education teacher at Mt Pleasant Junior-Senior High School; Gloria and Mike Sarnelli.
The billboard featuring Mt. Pleasant Area Junior High School student Michael Sarnelli, which will be erected along Route 119 near Connellsville in conjunction with Excela Health System's Health Habits campaign. Sarnelli is one of 10 area middle-schoolers who are being spotlighted on billboards around Westmoreland County during May and June for their commitment to habits that contribute to a long and disease-free life.

Mt. Pleasant Area Junior High School eighth-grader Michael Sarnelli will be featured on a billboard after being chosen as a winner of the “Healthy Habits” essay contest sponsored by Excela Health.

“I was really surprised,” said Sarnelli, 13, of Jones Mills. “I wasn't expecting to win.”

Sarnelli's essay addressed the importance of reading labels when purchasing food. “If a waitress at your favorite restaurant told you the special of the day was ‘Butylated Hydroxytoluene,' would you order it?” Sarnelli asked.

He said his family has focused on fresh, rather than pre-packaged, processed food items and selects organic produce whenever possible.

“My parents started teaching me when I was really young to compare foods and try to avoid the ones with damaging chemicals, and I tried to make that point (in my essay),” Sarnelli said.

More than 1,000 essays were submitted for the contest, which required students to write a paragraph essay about a healthy habit they practice and how it has improved their life.

Excela Health staff members chose the winning essays.

Mike and Gloria Sarnelli said they believed their son learned a lot from completing the essay.

“By reading labels, you sometimes find out that stuff you thought was good for you really isn't,” said Gloria Sarnelli.

The Sarnellis said they are very proud of their son.

“We've always stressed exercise and eating well,” said Mike Sarnelli. “It's good to know he's been listening.”

Eleven winners from 10 Westmoreland County middle schools were chosen and photos of them performing their healthy habit will be displayed on billboards being erected in May and June.

Sarnelli's billboard will be located along Route 119 in Connellsville.

Excela Health stressed that the activities the winning students depicted — such as exercise, eating well, staying hydrated, stress management and getting enough sleep — are practices that improve an individual's overall health and well-being. “Good health is habit forming, but healthy habits must be cultivated at an early age to ensure lasting results,” said Jennifer Miele, Excela Health spokeswoman. “At a time when adolescents are exploring their independence, we wanted to showcase healthy habits to inspire out community and encourage widespread and long-term participation in these positive lifestyle choices,” she said.

Brandon Mikeska, a Mt. Pleasant Area teacher who served as an advocate of the essay contest, said he thought Sarnelli did “a great job.”

Mikeska said students at the school submitted about 75 essays.

“I think we'd have even more participation next year,” Mikeska added.

Sarnelli was announced as the winner from the district at an assembly held recently at the school.

Miele made the announcement after engaging middle-school students in a mock game show that tested their health knowledge of certain food products.

Dubbed “The Nutrient is Right” after the television game show “The Price is Right,” the contest pitted teachers against students.

Latrobe Area Hospital Charitable Foundation and the Westmoreland/Frick Hospital Foundation supported the healthy essay contest by assisting with the cost of billboard production, Miele said.

Additionally, the billboard vendors discounted their monthly rental fees to show their support of healthy communities.

Miele said Excela Health hopes the charitable foundations and billboard vendors will be gracious enough to assist them in doing this project again next year.

“Excela Health is thrilled by the volume and quality of responses to our request for healthy habit essays,” Miele said. “We could all learn a thing or two from these kids, and that's precisely the point.”

Cami DiBattista is a freelance writer.