Dozens of Brown Avenue Elementary School students piled into the cafeteria on Thursday morning for a special visit from Mayor Joseph Polisena, who had a message for them as part of National Nutrition Month.
“It’s important to stay away from soda and a lot of sugary stuff, because it’s not good for you,” Polisena said.
His next statement was met with gasps. “For instance, I have not had a drink of soda in about 45 years.”
Polisena, a former nurse who has served as the town’s chief executive for 12 years, read to the students and held a short question-and-answer session as part of his visit. The day’s literary selection was “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food.”
The mayor read his copy of the book aloud cover to cover, while the students watched school nurse Diana Abbruzzi turn the pages on the overhead projector.
Once he was finished, Polisena discussed his background, covering his professional journey from firefighter and nurse to state senator and mayor.
“Way back when, I also became a registered nurse, and I used to work in the hospital in the emergency room, and that’s why I really push kids to make sure they eat healthy,” Polisena said. “Because we’ve seen a lot of older people come in and when they were kids, they ate bad.”
Polisena said he sticks to healthy habits every day, waking up at 3:30 a.m. to walk around the neighborhood and mainly consuming lemonade, orange juice and water throughout the day. He said sometimes he’ll cheat – chocolate is a personal favorite – but for the most part he aims to stick to regular, healthy eating habits.
“Always try to remember, what you put into your body, right, it’s got to be healthy,” he said. “And so you’ll stay healthy… I always make sure that I have fruits and vegetables every single day.”
Polisena said that he’s also worked as a professor at the Community College of Rhode Island, where he would teach a medical program. He said it was vital to ensure that students were eating right, or else they would face some obstacles down the road.
“Part of that program was you tell the students to make sure that they eat healthy because if they’re going to be firefighters, they have to be healthy and strong, right?” he said.
Polisena took a few questions from the crowd before students filed back to their classrooms. A sea of hands shot up to inquire about his past careers, with the first questioner asking about his more than two decades as a firefighter. He said he started at 18 and spent most of his time in rescue.
“So I went through training and I had to climb ladders and [said], ‘What am I doing?’ It was a lot of fun, it was fun helping people,” he said. “It was nice being able to help people.”
Polisena gave some more information on his time as a nurse, delving into responsibilities like starting IVs on children and working in emergency and operating rooms. He later said it was difficult breaking into the nursing field, and used it as a reminder that the students can do anything they set out to achieve.
“Whether you're a boy or a girl, you do any job you want to do,” Polisena said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. So if you want to be a firefighter, you want to be a nurse, you want to be a professor, you want to be a mayor – anything you want to do.”
However, he said, the students should remain mindful of their health along the way.
“You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have your health, you really don’t have anything,” he said.