Escondido Youth Create Change in Their Community

August 20, 2012 | 9:23am

Being involved in a community health improvement project had a profound effect on Valeria Hernandez.

“I walked into this opportunity wanting to make a change in our community – I was interested in how we could change something in our community in a bigger way,” she said. “I feel walking out that I was changed in the process.”

Hernandez was one of 17 Escondido youth taking part in Communities of Excellence (CX3), a partnership between the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) and the Escondido Education COMPACT.

The name comes from the goal of achieving excellence in nutrition, physical activity and obesity. HHSA decided to implement CX3 in five different regions of the county (with a sixth one about to kick off).

In North County, the idea to involve young people in the project made sense. COMPACT has been providing youth ages 14 to 21 with work readiness and employment skills training for more than 25 years.

“I knew about the County’s Live Well, San Diego initiative and then heard about CX3,” said Patty Huerta, COMPACT’s executive director. “I talked with Carey Riccitelli from HHSA and we discussed whether we thought the kids could do it.”

It turned out to be a perfect fit. One of COMPACT’s summer programs is a youth leadership academy. The Escondido Youth Voice is an off shoot of the academy and is made up of youth selected to participate based on their commitment to their community and leadership potential.

“It’s amazing how this partnership came together and how successful the kids have been,” said Huerta. “I want to thank the County.

“They saw the vision for youth to be successful and have this opportunity for our community to see youth in a positive way and we’re really grateful the County has stood by it.”

The goal of CX3 is to take a look at a low-income neighborhood, measure the nutrition environment and identify ways to make improvements. The group spent five months mapping out and examining Escondido’s Mission Park neighborhood. More than 50 percent of the population in that area is below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

The youth surveyed five fast food outlets, five grocery stores and studied the walkability of 20 city blocks.

“We walked and found graffiti, litter and lots of cracked sidewalks,” said Jesus Gonzalez. “I didn’t think it was that bad, but when I saw all the graffiti I was a little scared.”

Gonzalez explained that something as seemingly simple as lots of graffiti might be enough to make someone feel unsafe and unwilling to walk to the market for fresh fruits or vegetables.

Another obstacle the youth noticed was a lack of clearly marked pedestrian crossings at busy intersections like North Ash and East Valley Parkway.

“It’s important for people to be able to cross the street safely,” said Hernandez. “It’s hard to cross at certain intersections.

“We want to help clean up the street and have them repaint the crosswalks,” she added. “The purpose of this project is to help people in the community feel safe to go to the grocery store and buy healthy foods.”

The group examined fast food outlets looking for nutrition information and advertising geared toward children. They also looked at grocery stores for pricing, selection, advertising of healthy options and food assistance (EBT/WIC) acceptance.

The youth made Rethink Your Drink presentations to young children in summer camps. Rethink Your Drink is a campaign aimed at getting people to drink less sugary drinks.

“Kids were actually paying attention and asking questions,” said Gonzalez, who led the presentation.

Even though the five month project is over now, the process of improving their community is continuing. The youth presented their findings – and a plan of action – at an Escondido City Council meeting this week.

“At first it was kind of nerve-wracking to see the whole city council listening to you,” said Hernandez. “They said it was great that we are a group of youth who care about Escondido.

“They want the same thing we want, they want to improve Escondido.”

“The kids were prepared, informed and passionate,” said Huerta. “This is their community and they want their friends and neighbors to be healthy.”

Huerta said everyone was impressed that the youth didn’t simply make a presentation and say here’s the problem.

“They didn’t show up and ask for someone to do something,” she said. “They said ‘we’ll take a leadership role.’”

That impressed Escondido mayor Sam Abed and the city council members.

“We need the young people’s input in our community and it’s good to have people who are organized and did their homework,” said Abed during the youth's presentation.

“I like how you combined the health and wellness with actually looking at and analyzing an area of the city that you identified issues and the fact that people are a little bit scared or intimidated to cross those big intersections,” added Deputy Mayor Marie Waldron.

With guidance from COMPACT staff and Anita Walia, an HHSA student worker from San Diego State University, the youth are now recruiting fellow student volunteers, seeking adult support and working on getting what they need to make the improvements to the Ash/East Valley Parkway intersection.

“We’re going to recruit as many kids as we can to volunteer for the cleanup,” said Hernandez. “We want people to see that the youth are involved and do care about Escondido.

“Our eyes see things,” she said. “But through this experience, we saw a little more – and we paid attention.”