Earlier this month, we went to San Diego to attend the 9th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference. This year’s theme was “Good Health for All: Addressing Equity Where we Live, Learn, Work and Play” and it boasted almost 2,000 attendees from all over the nation. Among the glittering lineup of speakers who were there to share emerging research, best practices, community based efforts and policy strategies was Jessica Gallegos, an alumnus of our Health Academy program. She was invited to speak in a plenary entitled, “Leading the Way: Youth Advocating and Driving Policy, Systems and Environmental Change.”
It had been almost a year since Jessica graduated from Thomas Jefferson Senior High and started her freshman year as a biochemistry major at UCLA. She admits that it was challenging to recall all her activities in Health Academy as she prepared for her presentation. “It was hard to remember every moment that I was proud of” she says, “I knew I accomplished a lot with Health Academy but didn’t think the smallest projects we worked on made such an impact that others would want to hear about,” she said, alluding to the 400 or so people who were expected to attend her plenary.
Through Health Academy, Jessica and her peers played an integral role in getting a hydration station installed at her school and establishing a wayfinding signage system at a major corridor in her neighborhood to promote walking. She often took the lead on presenting youth-led efforts to key stakeholders in her school and community. These are just a few examples of the work our Health Academy has achieved, and Jessica shared these stories with her audience in such candid and genuine style that stood in stark but refreshing contrast to more formal presentations often seen at these conferences.
A nineteen year old Latina from South Central Los Angeles was sharing her story, and hundreds of public health professionals were listening. Jessica noticed this as she stood at the podium, “I felt tense going on stage and seeing my name card being placed on the panelists’ table because I didn’t think I was a person others would care to listen to and let alone take notes from… but they did. Once I started speaking I saw many people nodding their heads in agreement and even taking pictures of my presentation – of MY experience.”
Jessica had some special supporters of her own in the audience. Her older brother Javier as well as her boyfriend, Jose (who is also a Health Academy alum) drove down from Los Angeles long before the sun rose that morning just to see her. “My family was all around proud… on the drive back home from the conference, my brother gave me some tough love and told me that I could have done better – and I agree – but he reassured me even more that he was very proud.” She also adds that her presentation inspired a meaningful talk between her and her brother, “He told me that parents and families should be involved in these efforts to prevent obesity because the well-being of a child begins at home. We had a long discussion of that being very true, especially in our food desert, low-income community and the impact of parents being a part of these types of programs.”
Jessica’s story reaffirms the importance of programs such as the Champions for Change Healthy Communities Initiative, which has allowed us to expand our programming to not only engage youth but also their families through nutrition education classes we launched for parents in several elementary and high schools earlier this year. It is through these initiatives where we uplift community members that we can identify upstream solutions that will positively impact future generations.
For now, we have our families, and we have youth just like Jessica, who, even a year after Health Academy, is still passionate about giving back to her community and is even more energized to do so after the conference. She says, “I’ve thought about the public health field for a while and coming to this conference is making me consider it even more. I realized that the doctor I once wished to be is the last visit a person would want to – or should – make. The real difference happens way before that. It’s in where we live and what’s around us. It’s a reality my community knows too well.”