High School Health Activist Has Sights Set on Health Career

Aracely Ortiz first heard about the Health Academy during a recruitment presentation in class when she was in 9th grade. It was also Health Academy’s first year at Thomas Jefferson Senior High. “I wasn’t really involved in anything else at that time,” she explains, “but Health Academy just sounded different from all the other groups I’d heard about, so I decided to go for it.”

She went on to submit an application and sat through an interview, and in the spring semester of 2014, Aracely became a member, or “youth leader,” of the brand-new Health Academy program. After attending a few meetings and experiencing first-hand what the program was about, she was hooked. “At first I was debating whether to continue or not, but everyone in the program was so nice and supportive. It felt like a good place to be.”

Through Health Academy, Aracely learned some unexpected things about her community. She learned how her neighborhood is often considered a food desert or food swamp because of the prevalence of fast food restaurants and liquor stores compared to full-service grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. While discussing food swamps, she said, “it was definitely eye-opening. I thought that we already had a lot of things in our community, but now I’ve realized that we don’t have as much as we should.”

Since realizing this, Aracely has actively worked to improve access to healthy food for her school and her community. She often shares information she learns through Health Academy with her family and friends. “I always show my parents the healthy food recipes I get from Health Academy, and we’ve started making them at home… I’ve also taught my parents how to read nutrition labels, and it’s something we look at now when we shop for food”.

Aracely has also taken on leadership roles in several Health Academy initiatives, such as implementing Smarter Lunchroom strategies in the school cafeteria and the Mini Farm Stand project. Throughout her participation, Aracely has been an important voice for her fellow students and community members. One moment she feels particularly proud of was attending a youth summit hosted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health during her sophomore year, where she presented her team’s Cafeteria Makeover project to other high school students from across the County. “We made changes in the cafeteria that year that decreased the wait times for getting lunch and also got students more excited about the cafeteria food. More students started participating in the school lunch program, and I like to think our project helped… I felt really proud of how we presented our project and I think we were able to give other schools some good ideas.”

Her experience with Health Academy encouraged Aracely to be even more involved in school. Aside from Health Academy, she is now also an active member of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance chapter, Student Leadership and ROTC. Now a senior, Aracely is in her fourth and final year in Health Academy, where her role has expanded to include Youth Social Media Manager. In this position, she will work with other Health Academy students to create and post content for the NHF Health Academy Instagram page. Aracely is also getting ready for college next year and has already received acceptance letters from California State University, Dominguez Hills and Loyola Marymount University. She aspires to become a nurse someday, and credits her involvement in Health Academy for inspiring her interest in the health field.

Aracely is one of over a hundred students that has participated in Health Academy which is going into its fourth year through funding from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Recently, National Health Foundation received another Department of Public Health grant, the Champions for Change – Healthy Communities Initiative, to expand Health Academy to another Los Angeles high school; allowing NHF’s Health Academy and its proven benefits to reach many more students like Aracely, their families and the community.