Residents empowered to improve the health of their communities

June 01, 2019

It’s no secret that the obesity epidemic is a serious problem. About 93.3 million US adults1 are obese, and obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. In fact, an estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to obesity2. In California alone, 15 percent of 10-to-17-year-olds, and 25 percent of adults are overweight or obese. The health and lost-productivity cost of obesity for all ages in California is $21 billion a year.

In the Orange County and High Desert regions of Southern California, obesity has been linked with poverty3 – those cities with the highest levels of overweight residents tend to be those with the highest rates of poverty. This is because low-income neighborhoods often lack safe places to exercise and retail outlets with affordable, healthy foods.

In an effort to promote Health for a Better World, Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH) is concentrating on programs that can combat the negative effects of certain social factors, like those associated with obesity. For instance, through programs supported by PSJH community benefit investments, residents in Southern California’s Orange County and High Desert regions are being empowered to teach Zumba®, cook healthy on a budget, and advocate for community changes that will encourage all residents to live healthier lifestyles.

SCACBNews4Advocating for Fitness in the High Desert

In Adelanto, you can find local residents enjoying free Zumba® and other fitness classes, led by other residents, at the Unity Center five days a week. Similarly, residents in Victorville, Apple Valley and Hesperia are also teaching free fitness classes in the community. In fact, in 2018, 432 residents from these communities logged 5,833 physical activity hours through free fitness classes led by local residents.

This type of engagement is impressive for any community, but in the High Desert region, which has a large concentration of low-income neighborhoods that tend to have poor access to healthy, affordable food and safe places for physical activity, it’s a sign of needed change. With 37 percent of High Desert adults being obese – a percentage that is 10 points higher than the state average – the members of this community are at risk of developing a variety of related health issues.

However, through a grant from the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, partnership from the Community Health Action Network and community benefit support from St. Mary Medical Center, High Desert residents have been empowered to promote physical activity in their neighborhoods. This Communities of Excellence program includes helping local residents become certified physical fitness trainers, sponsoring weight loss challenges, conducting nutrition education programs, and teaching Spanish-speaking residents to advocate at the city level for policies that support a healthy lifestyle.

For instance, many residents in Adelanto can’t afford a gym membership or transportation. In 2015, the Communities of Excellence program enabled local residents to teach free fitness classes in a city park. However, due to the large temperature fluctuations in this region – the low 30s in the winter and above 100 in the summer – outdoor venues were only practical for a few months out of the year. So, through this program, St. Mary’s caregivers taught Spanish-speaking residents the basic processes of local government and how to write and deliver speeches. As a result, approximately 60 Adelanto residents went to months of city council meetings to advocate for a safe, indoor exercise space. Thanks to their efforts, they were able to secure a seven year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from the city, which ensures they have a consistent place to exercise, free of charge. Similar efforts have resulted in the designation of indoor exercise spaces in Victorville, Apple Valley and Hesperia.

“Initiatives like the Communities of Excellence program are vital to improving the social factors that often result in chronic conditions like obesity,” said Kevin Mahany, St. Mary Community Health Investment Director. “We aren’t just providing resources; we are teaching residents to fish, so to speak. By encouraging them to obtain fitness instructor certifications and teaching them how to advocate for the changes they need in their community, we are enabling them to reverse the social determinant factors that are negatively impacting community health.”

Programs that address the social factors associated with health are a priority for all members of the Providence St. Joseph Health family. In 2018, PSJH provided a community benefit investment of $285,345 to the Communities of Excellence program at St. Mary Medical Center.

SCACBNews5Resident Leadership Academies Help Create a Healthier Orange County

Another way PSJH is helping to combat the problems associated with obesity is with the Move More, Eat Healthy (MMEH) program sponsored by St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California. In 2018 alone, this program engaged 25,337 participants at events such as health fairs, clinics in the park, 5K runs, and nutrition and physical activity classes. It also had 5,812 resident encounters in 195 healthy lifestyle classes, which taught skills such as cooking healthy meals on a budget, making healthy snacks and engaging in physical activity using local resources, such as parks and bike paths. The program also funded 13 outdoor fitness centers to provide residents of low income neighborhoods a safe place to exercise.

In addition, during 2018, an exciting new initiative was added to St. Jude’s MMEH program: a Resident Leadership Academy (RLA). The RLA is a specialized course that empowers local residents by providing them with the knowledge, tools, strategies and commitment to make healthy environment and policy changes at the community level.

The results of this new program have been outstanding. In La Habra, RLA participants conducted a needs assessment with local residents and are completing plans for a local Farmers Market based on the results. In addition, along with Our Lady of Guadalupe, the La Habra Collaborative, and the Orange County Food Bank, the La Habra RLA members created a mobile Pop-up Pantry to distribute free fruits and vegetables at all city events. Recently, this partnership implemented a Senior Park-It Market to better meet the needs of seniors who are food insecure.

Buena Park RLA graduates helped create a more walkable community through the addition of crosswalks, stop signs, and no parking zones in the streets and intersections along Franklin Avenue.

In Placentia, the RLA advocated for park renovations at Jaycee Parkette. As a result, the entire park received a fresh coat of paint to cover up graffiti, making the park a cleaner, more pleasant place for residents to exercise.


Finally, the Fullerton RLA helped develop a video to market the goals and purpose of the Resident Leadership Academies. This video highlighted the positive impact these residents have on their community.

“The graduates of the RLA are true catalysts for change – they are motivated and empowered to provide needed leadership and spread important knowledge in their communities,” said Tracy Bryars, RD, MPH, Manager, Healthy Communities. “The RLA program has bridged a gap between providing services to the community and ensuring that we’re creating sustainable change that will create healthier communities.”

Recently, the program was expanded to include four Youth Leadership Academies to engage the future generation of leaders in advocating for healthy lifestyles.

In 2018, through a total community benefit investment of $638,560, the St. Jude MMEH program was able to effect policy, system and environmental changes that will help prevent and reduce obesity in the low income neighborhoods of North Orange County.


A video on MMEH and its partnership with a local school can be seen here: