June 09, 2016
By Charlene Muhammad
Jefferson High School honored over two dozen students who concluded a three-year pilot program designed to help underserved populations by looking at health disparities.
The National Health Foundation (NHF) launched the Thomas Jefferson Health Academy as an after-school Champions for Change program to engage youth leadership, critical thinking, problem solving, and community-based research focused on promoting healthy lifestyles in the community.
Since its inception in 2013, more than 100 students, like Leonela Cuevas, have participated in the Youth-Led Participatory Action Research.
“I never thought that I would be able to contribute to any program or anything. I started off in 9th Grade but I guess I gave up too soon,” said the soft-spoken student, as she accepted the Rising Star Award during the June 1 ceremony. She expressed joy that she rejoined, because she gained and grew a lot, she shared.
“It’s really important to contribute to anything that you’re a part of to the fullest. I honestly thought I would just go to high school and not be recognized by anything or anyone, but I guess I was wrong,” Cuevas said with a big smile and light chuckle.
For 30 weeks, youth led projects such as the cafeteria Makeover Hydration Station, Freshen Up Fridays, a Mini Farm Stand, and School Wellness Council, impacted more than 1,200 students each year, according to NHF facilitators Raymond Diaz and Grace Cotangco.
According to Diaz, Health Academy youth have conducted nutrition education and food demonstrations to over 6000 individuals. He thanked parents and program partners for their contributions.
“Being in Health Academy and being in public health and being an advocate for the community, we know that it’s impossible to do anything on your own. Impossible. You need a coalition … Thank you for everything that you guys have done for Grace and myself,” Diaz said before he presented awards to the students.
In addition to certificates and backpacks presented to all students, Health Academy Seniors received gold sashes for 12th grade graduation. Two students received iPads for demonstrating extraordinary dedication to improve the community. And Andrea Ortega received the 2016 Health Academy Award.
The students’ efforts have meant more accessible physical activity to all residents of South Central L.A. through the project, which is comprised of four youth teams that worked to research and identify challenges to accessing and consuming healthy foods and beverages.
Kelly Bruno, president and CEO of NHF, shared with graduates that when she was their age, she had already lived in seven states and attended 11 schools. Her family was fractured from divorce to extreme poverty.
As she described her family’s harsh living conditions, she said understood she, like they, had two choices. “I’m very proud to say that I made the choice to change, and I’m also very proud to tell you that you guys have all made the exact same choice, because all of you have said that it’s not okay that my chances of being healthy are less than people that live two miles from here, and I’m going to do something about it,” Bruno stated.
She further said the program would be replicated probably at least five or 10 times over. “That’s the impact that you’re going to have, so instead of you guys thanking us, I would like to thank you,” Bruno added.
“There is no amount of money that can demonstrate what you have accomplished as the Health Academy. There’s no amount of money, because the values that you have are priceless,” Augustin Gonzalez, Jefferson High Principal, told graduates.