California State University — Long Beach

Hispanic youth in Long Beach, California suffer heightened health risks due to soaring poverty rates. The Youth Empowerment for Success YES! Sí Se Puede (“it can be done”) Program has inspired healthier living among a group of Hispanic youth and their families.

In Long Beach, California, Hamilton Middle School is located just three blocks from the infamously violent Compton — 8th on the FBI’s list of most dangerous cities in the United States. Historically Black non-Hispanic, today Hamilton is predominantly Latino, with 94 percent of its student body qualifying for free or reduced price meals. Hamilton Middle School students struggle to hold onto their culture in the midst of poverty from an area whose poverty rate is twice the national average. Doing all they can to keep the family unit together, this population is just barely keeping its head above water.

“Many of these students come to California under very high-stress situations,” says Dr. Britt Rios-Ellis, Director of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR)/CSULB Center for Latino Community Health, Evaluation and Leadership Training. “They’re basically in survival mode. Our students and their families are struggling. College isn’t even on their radar. But with YES!, we’re putting it on the radar.”

YES! is a program that promotes academic success and healthy lifestyles for a group of 34 at-risk Latino youth (ages 10-16), from Hamilton Middle School. The students engage in after school programming such as academic tutoring and physical fitness, as well as monthly health workshops and bi-monthly digital media classes. In a district where 7th graders are 47% percent obese or overweight, the latter is not just important, it’s imperative. Thankfully, the YES! fitness program has rendered extraordinary results.

“We were thrilled,” says Dr. Rios-Ellis. “Our program actually decreased their total body fat from 27 to 24 percent, moving from unhealthy ranges into healthy ranges, which is amazing. The parents were amazed too, telling us, Their bodies are changing, they’re more active, they’re coming home at night and they don’t even want to play video games! They were as thrilled as we were!”

The summer program — and YES! as a whole — has had other positive effects as well, such as an increase in self-esteem and healthier dietary choices. According to Dr. Rios-Ellis, these changes are inherently linked to the cultural pride the YES! Program instills in each of its students. “Health is very much engendered with culture,” says Dr. Rios-Ellis. “The more in tune Latino youth are with their culture, the more they understand their rich cultural heritage, the fewer risky behaviors they engage in. The greater their cultural pride, the less likely they are to use drugs and engage in sexual behavior at an early age. Conversely, the more likely they are to make responsible choices, and to look at their future and see real potential.”

Thanks to the YES! Program, 13-year-old Beyanse has gained a newfound appreciation for her El Salvadorian and African-American background. It’s also helped her become a healthier young lady. “The YES! Program had a great impact on me,” says Beyanse. “It taught me how to appreciate my culture.” It also helped her transform her report card. “Before the YES! Program, I was getting straight Fs across the board. Now, thanks to YES!, I made Honor Roll … twice.” “Not only are students’ grades going up, they are glowing with good health,” says YES! Program Coordinator Dr. Mara Bird. “This program is working!”

Such a remarkable turnaround is indicative of the strong mentors available through the program. But YES! goes beyond simply featuring strong mentors. It features strong mentors who have faced — and overcome — the same obstacles the students themselves face. In that way, the mentors become symbolic of the very lesson they try to impart: Believe in yourself, work hard, and you can accomplish your highest goals.

“I don’t think I could have made it to med school were it not for the people in my life who told me I could be anything I wanted to be,” says YES! mentor Kim Ramirez, a fourth-year medical student at the University of California — Irvine and graduate student at CSULB. Ms. Ramirez’s mother was a Filipino immigrant, and her Mexican-American father never graduated from high school. “As a mentor, that’s what I’m here to do for them. To be that person who tells them they can accomplish anything. And being that I’m from the same ethnic background and the same modest upbringing, they can relate to me. And so they listen.”

It’s a message that resonates — with students as well as with parents who accompany their children on YES! health and cultural workshops, and physical fitness activities at the university. “We try to include the families in everything we do,” says Dr. Rios-Ellis. “Because families are an important strength within the Latino community. Really, it’s an underutilized tool we can use to better fight health and educational disparities in this community. Looking into a parent’s eyes, hearing them say, Wow, my kid could be here. This could be his future … That was a moving experience!”

The health improvements this program inspires in these youth — and their families —exemplify the ability of the Latino community to make positive change in a collective fashion. “In terms of national schemata,” concludes Dr. Rios-Ellis, “This program has the potential to reduce healthcare and incarceration costs, while contributeing to career transformations and educational achievement. YES! underscores our ability to reach out to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in a way that will help them chart a course that leads to college. It’s helping them gain new skills so they can lead healthy, vibrant, productive lives. There’s a lot of hope here. Because these kids now know — for the first time in their lives — that they have something valuable to contribute to society. And I have no doubt that they will.”