WILLMAR - A group of about 20 Willmar Middle School students began learning how to “discover and hone their inner superhero” in an after-school program this month.

That’s the philosophy of SuperHeroes 101, led by Marcus McCleery of New London. McCleery is a personal trainer and motivational speaker. He usually works with adults but said the middle schoolers are a lot of fun.

SuperHeroes 101 is supported by the school’s contract with the Health and Learning Connections Pilot Project through the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota. Physical education teacher Samantha Nelson is the coordinator.

Willmar is one of four districts in the state to participate in the pilot project. The goal is to increase physical activity and academic achievement.

“They’re so focused,” McCleery said, as he watched the kids learn about mindful movement from local yoga instructor Mary Beth Nehl.

McCleery said he is using the program to talk to the young people about team building, positive thinking, exercise and the importance of strengthening their core. They don’t eat snacks at their meetings; they “get fuel” for their bodies.

“I talk about how unique they are,” he said, and he hopes to build their self-confidence.

“Everyone’s a superhero,” he added. “It’s not about whether you show the letter on your chest.”

McCleery started working with the students in early October, meeting after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After a handful of meetings, he believes he’s already seen changes in them.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised how willing they are to learn new things,” he said. “If they just move, that’s all I want them to do.”

Since he doesn’t know them from school, he added, he comes in with the same expectations for all of them. He’s put some normally shy kids in leadership positions, he said, and they have blossomed in their new roles.

“Kids need us,” McCleery said to explain his interest in leading the group. “This is our community; these are our kids.”

Another popular activity for the group has been the tabata, an interval workout that alternates 20 seconds of high intensity exercise with 10 seconds of rest.

Students seem to enjoy the group.

“It’s really fun,” said Elijah Werknan, 11, a sixth-grader. “We do all sorts of things and different kinds of exercises.”

Elijah said he thought the yoga-related class with Nehl was really peaceful.

“I like that it helps you stay fit, and it’s fun,” said Analuisa Cardenas, 12, a seventh-grader. At first, she said, she wasn’t interested in the group, but agreed to sign up with a friend. Now she’s glad she did.

Health teacher Mary Hanson, who also works with the program, said the pilot project tries to teach students fun ways to move.

“This program has given us permission to try some things we’ve always wanted to do,” Hanson said.

Hanson and Nelson said they have many plans for the program. There’s a morning Cardinal Strength Club and a Junior Chef program Wednesday afternoons. Classrooms have been outfitted with stability balls and other active seating options. Coming soon will be a mileage club.