2016-09-02 / Schools

Teens’ advice on healthy eating is right on the dot

Students fight for healthier communities
By Hector Gonzalez


HEALTHY HEARTS—Teens Rosa Mejia, left, Denisse Rivera and Melissa Pech are three of about 40 local teens involved in the Westminster Free Clinic’s “Corazones Sanos para Mi Familia,” or “Healthy Hearts for My Family” program. Besides receiving medical training, the teens assist the clinic in battling high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in their communities throughout Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. 
Courtesy of Westminster Free Clinic HEALTHY HEARTS—Teens Rosa Mejia, left, Denisse Rivera and Melissa Pech are three of about 40 local teens involved in the Westminster Free Clinic’s “Corazones Sanos para Mi Familia,” or “Healthy Hearts for My Family” program. Besides receiving medical training, the teens assist the clinic in battling high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in their communities throughout Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. Courtesy of Westminster Free Clinic Their hearts are in the right place.

Latino teens participating in the Thousand Oaks-based Westminster Free Clinic’s Corazones Sanos para Mi Familia program, or Healthy Hearts for My Family, are constantly brainstorming ideas to help reduce the high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in their communities.

Nearly two years ago, at one of their first weekly meetings in November 2014, a small group of about six Spanish-speaking high school students from Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park came up with the idea for a code of colored dots.

Little colored circles—red dots signifying foods that are good for the heart, green dots for foods that are good for people with diabetes—were a quick and simple way to point consumers toward healthy food choices at their neighborhood markets and overcome any obstacles of illiteracy, said Elizabeth Quizada, 20, of Simi Valley, who was an original member of the group.

People could just follow the dots.

Today, the red and green markers are found in the produce aisles and on the shelves at eight Latino markets in Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo.

“We thought about where the community shops more often, which stores,” said Quizada, who is going into her second year at the University of San Francisco’s school of nursing. “Most of them shop in the Latino markets in the towns where they live. So we went out and talked to the store owners, and they agreed to let us to do it. That was our first big project.”

Since then, Westminster Free Clinic, which serves as the home base for the Corazones Sanos program, received a nearly $180,000 grant from AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation to help continue the work of this student-led initiative.

The Corazones Sanos program has grown in size and outreach to now include 30 bilingual students, eight Latino markets and five cities in east Ventura County, said Lisa Safaeinili, president of the clinic.

The teens publish a bimonthly newsletter in Spanish and also help the clinic’s staff at health screenings, which occur once a week at a Latino market in one of the four communities.

Because of the students’ outreach efforts, stores like Mercado Guadalajara No. 3 and Palapa Mexican Food in Simi Valley, and Establos Meat Market in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks offer items like almond milk, whole-wheat tortillas and other healthy food options, Safaeinili said.

‘A much bigger impact’

“It’s an innovative approach in that we’re including local teenagers and providing a cardiovascular health program aimed at the Latino community using students who are actually from that community,” Safaeinili said. “So they’re serving their area, their uncles, their brothers. They know the communities’ needs and are able to make a much bigger impact.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Latinos are nearly twice as likely as non-Latino whites to be diagnosed with diabetes and are 40 percent more likely than whites to die of the disease.

More than 33 percent of Mexican-American men and 30 percent of Mexican-American women have cardiovascular disease, which high blood pressure contributes to, according to the American Heart Association.

More than 40 percent of Mexican American boys and more than 38 percent of Mexican- American girls are overweight, a 2013 AHA study found.

“What we see a lot of times is people just eating too much of a certain thing, like tortillas,” Quizada said. “Or sometimes they’ll think that eating fruit is really good for them, but then they eat too much of it, which raises their blood sugar.”

Students in the program are trained in communications skills, but they also receive some medical training, including how to take blood pressure and other basics.

“There are seven medical skills they must pass before they earn their names on their scrubs,” Safaeinili said.

That blue scrub with a student’s name on the front often can be the impetus for college, she said.

“We’ve been very successful in getting our students placed in college,” Safaeinili said. “Often they’re the first in their families to go to college.”

Rosa Mejia, 21, decided to pursue a degree in social work after joining Corazones Sanos while she was a sophomore at Thousand Oaks High.

“The program gives you real hands-on experience, and it’s an opportunity to allow us to get actively involved in the healthcare of the community,” said Mejia, who is going into her second year at Cal State Channel Islands. “It feels good when you can help people accomplish goals they couldn’t on their own.”

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