A healthy-living program for youths in Southern Arizona has secured enough grant funding to expand its reach and encourage thousands of kids to make healthy food choices, boost physical activity and gain leadership skills, leaders say.

The Pima County Cooperative Extension’s 4-H “Youth Voice: Youth Choice” program has received $78,000 in grant funding from the Walmart Foundation for the 2016-2017 school year.

Funding for the program — which is in its third year — is never guaranteed, so organizers were excited this year’s grant allows them to significantly expand the program, said Dan McDonald, interim director of the Pima County Cooperative Extension.

“The idea is to have youth be more informed about their health choices, both in terms of their nutrition and physical activity, but also to be leaders in their communities,” he said.

Through partnerships with schools in Pima, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties, organizers aim to reach 5,000 elementary-age children, as well as 250 Native American youths and 125 high schoolers who can become “Healthy Living Ambassadors.”

Last year the program was funded to reach 1,750 children, McDonald said.

The Healthy Living Ambassadors component is more intensive than the program for younger kids, who get six hours of nutrition education and physical activity, McDonald said.

Ambassadors are trained in how to share what they’ve learned with others, becoming leaders in their schools, their neighborhoods and within their own families, he said.

For 17-year-old Destiny Camou, a senior at Sabino High School, volunteer work came naturally — she’s done it for most of her life. But she said her time as a Healthy Living Ambassador also helped her become more outgoing and confident as a leader, while giving her opportunities to interact with younger kids from a low-income school district. Today’s youths face an uphill battle to stay active, she said.

“When I was little, I was always outside and running around. But now kids are so consumed in technology, it’s hard to get kids out in the community and out exercising,” said Camou, who plans to study chemical engineering after graduation. “The main goal is to get kids my age and younger involved in the community and to kind of unite youth, so we can all work toward a healthier tomorrow.”

Last year, dozens of young Healthy Living Ambassadors hiked into the Grand Canyon, an annual event covered by the Star last spring. The students had to first complete and log 50 hours of hiking and complete a qualifying hike on Mount Wrightson south of Tucson to ensure they could manage the challenging trek into the canyon, McDonald said.

The program is also focused on reaching out to the diverse indigenous populations of Pima County through partnerships with the San Xavier Mission School and the Tucson Indian Center, who will help train a number of Healthy Living Ambassadors, McDonald said.

Schools that sign up will get resources and support from program organizers, McDonald said, including kits to help students launch walking and running clubs at their schools and track their own healthy eating habits.

Participating students and their families will have two big events to look forward to: The Tucson Marathon Family Fitness Fest on Dec. 3 will include a one-mile fun run and an obstacle course. Students will also get hands-on experience with food cultivation during a Family Farm Day event, to be held in the spring at the Tucson Village Farm. The farm is also offering a certification course for high schoolers who want to establish community gardens at their schools and in their neighborhoods.

The Youth Voice: Youth Choice grant will not only give youths important tools to improve their own health, “but also builds their self-confidence and leadership skills by setting them up with the tools they need to act as peer liaisons,” Thom Plasse, instructional specialist at Tucson Village Farm, said in a news release. “We find that teens especially respond well to information that comes from their peers, rather than adults.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com or 573-4233.