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Praxina Guerra and her mentor Cathy Lopez are true Salud Heroes when it comes to creating an environment of school health and fun.
After becoming involved with a local student ambassador program and creating a school club to encourage students to adopt healthier practices, the pair collected funds for a water bottle fountain, also called a hydration station, to be installed in the school’s cafeteria.
Their team also started monthly Wellness Wednesday fitness events, available to both parents and students, as a way to increase fitness opportunities for the surrounding community.
Seeing the Issue of Obesity First-Hand
According to a 2009, Bexar County assessment of obesity by school district, 40% of children enrolled in South San Antonio Independent School District (SSAISD) were overweight or obese.
“We have a lot of obese children… and we don’t have many programs for the kids, there’s nothing for them to do,” said parent Stacey Estrada.
Praxina Guerra, a fifth-grader at Five Palms Elementary School, an 89% Latino school in SSAISD, observed that many kids were not as physically active as they should be, and they often snacked on junk food like chips, candy, and sodas.
Cathy Lopez, Praxina’s P.E. teacher, was equally troubled.
“In class we’re always saying make sure you drink water,” said Lopez. “But when they go home we don’t know what they do.”
Sometimes making the healthy choice can be challenging, especially when low-income communities, like the one surrounding Five Palms, lack recreation centers and easy access to affordable healthy foods and drinks.
That’s why Lopez looked for ways to engage both teachers and students in creating a healthier school environment.
She had previously heard of the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council Student Ambassador Program through relatives, as her nephew was a student participant and her sister was a mentor for a student at another school.
So when Lopez received an email in Spring 2014 inviting her to nominate a student for the program, she nominated Praxina, who had expressed an interest in helping her peers get healthy.
Getting Involved in School Change
Soon after learning that she had been selected to represent Five Palms as a student ambassador, Praxina invited other students to team up with her.
As an ambassador of the Mayor’s Fitness council (MFC), one of Praxina’s tasks was to assess the needs of her school and to learn more about the types of healthy changes students wanted to see.
During morning announcements she announced that she would soon be starting a club called Praxina’s Pals to come up with a plan to encourage students at Five Palms to make healthy choices.
In August 2014, Praxina was joined by a group of about 10 other students, for Praxina’s Pals’ first meeting.
At the meeting, Lopez says the students were full of several bright ideas.
“Why not create posters and hang them in the cafeteria to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?” the students asked.
The students also came up with the idea of creating posters that featured taglines such as:
• “Re-think your drink—cut out the sugar.”
• “Get your groove on and get some fruit.”
• “Eat your veggies.”
The students also brought up the idea of having an after school program where both parents and students could exercise.
During that same meeting, according to Lopez, one of the students asked, “Why don’t we have water as an option during lunch?”
That got Lopez to thinking about ways to make water easily available to students.
“It got me curious,” said Lopez.
She told the students that she would look into the matter to see how they could make it easier for students to drink water during lunch time and throughout the school day.
Solution: Water Bottle Fountain
Lopez immediately looked online for a water bottle fountain (or hydration station), which is a filtered water fountain used for filling up water bottles. She saw that a typical hydration station at full retail price could cost up to $1,200.
At this point Lopez and Praxina applied for a $500 grant from the Mayor’s fitness council and she reached out to her school principal, Greg Martinez.
Martinez was completely on board with the idea and even offered to call some plumbing companies that he thought might offer a discount for the equipment they needed.
Soon, Martinez came back with news that one company was willing to sell the school a hydration station at wholesale price, about $884.
Praxina and Praxina’s Pals created the health promoting posters they had talked about at their meeting and placed them throughout the school and cafeteria.
Lopez contacted groups like the Health Collaborative and Any Baby Can to see if these organizations could bring Zumba and fitness classes to Five Palms during after school hours. Upon learning that the MFC had awarded them funds for their project, Lopez reached out to Estrada for support. Estrada was not only a Five Palms parent, but also a newly elected board member of the SSAISD.
“When she [Estrada] came to pick up her son, I approached her about it,” Lopez said.
Lopez told Estrada about Praxina’s vision for creating a healthier school environment and about how after receiving a $500 grant from the MFC, they weren’t far from having enough money to purchase a new hydration station.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get the rest,” Estrada told Lopez.
According to Estrada, having the principal’s backing was key for bringing a hydration station to Five Palms, because for this type of change the school needs permission from the district.
Fortunately, Estrada says the community at Five Palms is very supportive of initiatives that support the health and wellness of students.
“Whenever someone is doing something, the whole group is behind them,” she said. “We need to focus on how we can make our district better.”
Shortly after speaking with Lopez, Estrada reached out to District 4 city council member Rey Saldaña and to Texas Rep. Philip Cortez. She explained the project and how it would benefit students at Five Palms elementary.
“I’m very persistent,” Estrada said. “This district is my heart—anyone who knows me, knows that.”
In February 2015, Saldaña paid a surprise visit to Five Palms to award Praxina a $200 check. Rep. Cortez also donated funds towards the hydration station.
While Lopez and Praxina worked to raise remaining funds needed for the hydration station, in January 2015, they moved forward with launching their monthly, hour-long Wellness Wednesday event.
“We got a gift card from Academy and bought some things to encourage kids to come.”
Lopez says prizes like soccer ball, hula hoops, and jump ropes were to be given away as part of a raffle.
Community partners like Any Baby Can and the Health Collaborative agreed to send out a fitness instructor to lead the school’s Wellness Wednesday events.
Then over spring break 2015, Lopez purchased the hydration station, which to her surprise was installed by the district’s maintenance team just a week later.
Only days after returning from spring break vacation, students at Five Palms had a new hydration station.
“It’s an amazing asset for the school,” said Estrada.
Prior to installing the hydration station, Estrada said her son did not like to drink water. Once he saw the new station, Estrada says he got excited and started drinking from it.
More students had extra motivation to bring water bottles and drink water.
“It’s hard nowadays to keep them motivated,” Estrada said. “When they’re in school that’s a big plus, because we can reach them that way.”
Extending Fitness to Wellness Wednesday
On Wellness Wednesdays, Praxina’s Pals stand outside the school holding posters to encourage parents to stay an hour for Wellness Wednesday.
Lopez says the response from parents has been positive.
“I got approached by lots of parents saying, ‘Can we do this more often?’” said Lopez.
She believes Wellness Wednesdays are also great because they bring families together and the kids see their parents exercising.
While students receive instructional P.E. time, Estrada believes that’s not enough.
“There’s lots of things that we need to look into,” said Estrada. “I think if we did local recreational programs that would really benefit the community.”
For the time being, Wellness Wednesday will continue through Spring 2015, but Lopez says she wouldn’t mind making it a permanent event for the community.
Lopez and Praxina would also like to raise funds to purchase every student a water bottle with the school’s logo. During morning announcements and by placing posters throughout the school, they plan to remind students to drink water.
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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