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Arizona nun helps give students a running start

Sister Martha Mary Carpenter of the Saint Peter Mission School in central Arizona is working with the children of the Gila River Indian community to fight childhood obesity
Arizona nun helps children tackle obesity 02:24

ARIZONA -- It's a story that CBS News has been following for more than a decade. A partnership between a community in crisis, and a nun, who's devoted her life to helping. The bond between the community and this nun has only grown stronger as time has gone on.

Students at Saint Peter Mission School in the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona are running for their lives. It is a daily ritual that is not part of their gym class, or even an after school sport.

Adult onset diabetes, once known as a disease of the elderly, is affecting children here as young as 4 years old.

"Knowing the propensity our people have for diabetes, we start our day out with running," said Sister Martha.

Sister Martha Mary Carpenter is the school's principal.

Sister Martha Mary Carpenter. CBS News

"We don't teach subjects, we teach children," she said. "And we're giving them the skills, lifelong healthy habits. How to eat and how to inexpensively take care of yourself, good running shoes and take-off."

Alyta Hillard has been teaching physical education at the school since 1980.

"When I take them out I exercise them and bring them back -- they are going to be alert, they are going to be energetic, they are going to be enthused, the oxygen is going to be in the brain," she said. "You'll be able to teach them and work with them."

Some of the 230 boys and girls enrolled in the Kindergarten through eighth grade school are already clinically obese, a few tipping the scale at nearly 300 pounds.

"We are talking 14, 15 years old. We are talking girls and boys," said Hillard. "That's a lot of weight that's really hard on the muscles and the bones, which are trying to hold this frame up."

There's a graveyard nearby filled with those who died prematurely.

Nearby graveyard in Arizona for those who died prematurely. CBS News

If not for the lessons learned at this school?

"It would probably be doubled in size," said Sister Martha.

For thousands of years, the Pima Indians lived off the land, farming the desert. But after the Gila River was dammed in 1930 to provide water to nearby Phoenix -- their farms dried up.

Stephen Lewis is the governor of the Gila River Indian Community.

"When you start to look at our history, before our water was taken from us, we were historically known and we referred to ourselves as the people of the river," he explained.

In 2003, "60 Minutes" visited this community. It's rare to see a physically fit person here, and according to the National Institutes of Health, they are still among the most obese Americans.

"This is really a life or death situation that we are talking about....diabetes, obesity. This is the miner's canary," said Lewis.

Back then, Sister Martha had taken on the federal government and won. She was granted permission to modify the federal school lunch guidelines for her students.

Today's lunches are healthier.

"Low on carbohydrates, higher on protein, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables," she explained.

Sister Mary Martha high-gives a running student. CBS News

The results are visible, and invisible.

"Among our youth here at St. Peter's, we're starting to really see a change." said Lewis.

"This year we may have several children who are pre-diabetic, but we don't have any children who have that dreaded disease," said Sister Martha.

After 33 years of fighting for these kids, this battle has become personal.

A young girl runs at Saint Peter Mission School in Arizona. CBS News

"When I see their smiling faces and their running feet, just makes my day," Sister Martha said, through tears.

With her help, these kids now have a running start, on the rest of their lives.

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