Benson is the executive director of Hip Hop Public Health with plans to return to the University to teach a youth sports class.

Whether working at the YMCA or in New York City’s public schools, Lori Benson, M.A. ’99, has devoted her career to helping adults and kids get fit and stay healthy. But that career came through some unexpected channels.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Benson graduated from UMass Amherst with a career in package design in mind. Instead, what she’d always imagined to be her hobbies led her first to a job and then to a master’s degree in physical education from Adelphi.

“As a kid, I was chubby,” she explained. “That’s what my mom would have said. Based upon standards, you could say I probably was obese.” Even though she loved dance and individual activities, school P.E. was, she said, “the bane of my existence.” Then, in high school, she discovered the school fitness center, and everything changed.

With her new passion, she became a swim instructor and then a certified fitness instructor. A violinist, she also channeled her love of teaching into volunteering at an elementary school in East New York. Just as she was finishing college, the music teacher at the elementary school went on sabbatical, and the principal offered Benson the position.

Under New York City policy at the time, she could be provisionally licensed so long as she completed an education degree in the next five years. With her passion for wellness still going strong—even after full days of teaching elementary school she taught evening fitness classes—she found her way to Adelphi’s Physical Education Graduate Alternative Teacher Education (GATE) program.

The program, Benson said, couldn’t have had more impact on her as a future professional. “I had friends who were taking physical education degrees in other schools at the same time and the coursework didn’t compare,” she said. “The experience of the interaction with the instructors just didn’t compare.” Above all, she said, GATE’s requirement that students join and participate in professional learning organizations proved pivotal.

“Whenever I’d be at a conference or at an Adelphi social event, I’d run into Dr. Ron Feingold [now professor emeritus]. He’d smile and pat me on the back and say, ‘You know, Lori, I really think you should do XYZ.’” Among his recommendations was that Benson run to be the New York City zone president of the New York State Physical Education Association. She ran, and she won.

“It was all of those pushes that were slightly or maybe a little bit more than slightly outside my comfort zone,” she said. “It was that constant taking you to the next level and having someone take such a personal interest in you.”

After completing her master’s degree at Adelphi, Benson moved from the classroom to leading the implementation of a new fitness initiative in 17 schools in Central Harlem. Over the next few years, she rose to become the director of the Office of Fitness and Health Education, overseeing physical and health education for the entire New York City public school system with its more than one million students and 1,700-plus schools.

“So much of the vision for that office was built upon the work that I had done at Adelphi,” said Benson. “For example, there was a curriculum that we built as a group that focused on sport education for middle school. We took that concept and turned it into the inaugural CHAMPS middle school sports and fitness league, which started with a pilot of 40 programs and now has thousands of programs.”

After that she served as vice president for healthy lifestyles at the YMCA of Greater New York, working to improve the health of New Yorkers of all ages, everyone from the Y’s youngest members, children under a year, all the way up to the oldest active adults.

In March, she became executive director of Hip Hop Public Health, a nonprofit that works with musicians (including legendary rappers like Doug E. Fresh) to encourage kids to get moving and make smart food decisions. “We aim to make the healthy choice the cool choice,” she said. She’s also on tap to teach a youth sports class this fall at Adelphi’s Manhattan campus. “I’m incredibly excited for this opportunity to work with—and give back to—the university that gave so much to me,” she said.

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