A Report From The Field

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Hello! I am back after a little blog-writing break! I took the last few weeks off to cram like crazy for midterms and am proud to report back good grades so far. I was recently asked to write an article for my student dietetic association’s newsletter about the work I do with the H.E.L.P. program at White Memorial Medical Center. The article is below. If you are curious at all about the type of work I do in the community, read on! It is fulfilling and gratifying and truly makes me feel as if I am making a difference in children’s lives. Cheers to good health!

A Report from the Field

I am a community health educator for White Memorial Medical Center’s H.E.L.P. (Healthy Eating Lifestyles) Program. It is a wonderful opportunity to take what I am learning while a nutritional science graduate student and apply it directly to the community. I stumbled upon this program through a series of fortunate events, one of which is that, as a Pilates trainer, I am lucky enough to know and train the president of White Memorial, Beth Zachary. She has been a true source of inspiration to me, not only with what she does for her work, but also for the amazing and wonderful person she is in life.

Beth told me about this program that she helped found at White Memorial in conjunction with several other hospitals in order to combat childhood obesity. This was exactly the type of program I was looking to shadow and learn about, as the work is part of what I want to do professionally after I graduate. The program is a free community service offered to the population surrounding White Memorial Medical Center and is an obesity prevention class designed for overweight or obese children ages 5-12 and their adult family member. This kind of work is vital, especially today, as we are seeing more and more children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and associated illnesses. I expressed great interest in the program, and Beth connected me to the Diabetes Department which heads up H.E.L.P..

After a relatively detailed volunteer orientation, which included reading their volunteer handbook, completing a quiz, receiving a TB test and MMR vaccine, and coordinating with their volunteer director, I had my badge and was ready to start. It’s a small thing, but getting that badge, which allowed me access through employee doors and parking in the employee parking lot, was a big win for me. I felt more official than I have felt in a long time, and truly felt I was on my way towards doing good for people.

I observed the class for about 4 months, eventually becoming the assistant to the teacher, and also began taking on leadership for some of the activities. The class is five modules total including an additional orientation and a graduation three months after the fifth module, and is a basic nutrition and healthy lifestyle class designed to be an interactive and fun learning environment. We take a health survey and calculate both the child’s and the adult’s BMI during the orientation as well as give an overview of what we will teach in the following five modules. The five modules are designed to teach about several aspects of healthy living including the following: the six nutrients, energy balance, the importance of breakfast, grocery shopping, the creation of exercise and eating action plans, eating out and special occasions, cooking, sugar in drinks, and more. During the fifth module we take another health survey and calculate their BMI to see if the students and their parents are incorporating the material. Then the class comes back after three months for their graduation, where we take another health survey and BMI, and award prizes including certificates and a special award for the Biggest Loser both parent and child edition.

The staff asked me to watch for a few weeks and then meet to discuss improvements that could be made to the program. I gave my observations and thoughts and also provided some ways I thought that the program could be improved, such as updating the teaching materials to include PowerPoint presentations and finding ways to make certain modules more clear. I also suggested a change to the grocery shopping module, which I found to be less stimulating for the children, and suggested making the module not only a label reading class, but also a interactive and fun family scavenger hunt challenge where the children and their parents could find and gather healthy items in the store together.

By May, I received word that the current teacher was being pulled from her position and was being transferred to another department. Although it was sad to see her go, it opened up the opportunity for me to apply for the position, which I promptly did. The only downside to the change was that due to some budget cuts the class was reduced to only once a week as opposed to twice a week. However, I knew this experience would be invaluable, not only because it gives me the opportunity to hone and refine my teaching skills, but that it also essentially forces me to use my Spanish skills.

If there is only one piece of advice I can give anyone wanting to work as a dietitian in Los Angeles, it is to learn Spanish. You will need it. It will also endear you to your clientele, even if your Spanish is not perfect, which mine certainly isn’t. In fact, while observing the program before I was hired, I was really impressed with the teacher. She is Chinese but grew up in Brazil, and even though her Spanish was sort of a conglomeration of Portuguese and Spanish and Spanglish, I saw what it takes to communicate to a mostly Hispanic population. I took a brush-up Spanish course over the summer and began practicing like crazy before I started teaching.

After being hired, I set out to make some of the changes I desired for the program. I took a few weeks to compile PowerPoint presentations for all the modules including the orientation and graduation. And thanks to help from my wonderful volunteer Sonia Jaramillo-Lua, another nutritional science graduate student at Cal State LA, I was able to include Spanish translations in the PowerPoints. I must say that those translations have been absolutely invaluable to me. Even if you speak conversational Spanish, you have no idea how complicated it is to communicate relatively complex nutritional concepts in another language. Sonia was an amazing help to me. Sadly she had to move on to begin her internship and I miss her and am so very grateful to her. However, I am blessed with a new volunteer, Nelly, who hopes to become a doctor someday soon, and is volunteering to gain experience in the field before school. She is completely fluent is Spanish and always knows just the right moment to jump in and clarify very complicated nutritional topics in Spanish when my brain is fried. She is fabulous.

I just recently finished my first five modules of teaching and am proud to report that almost every one of my students lost weight. They have yet to come back for graduation, but this fact alone was really amazing as these were the best results I had ever seen since starting in February. In addition, the one child who did not lose weight decided to come back to take the class again by his own volition. But it is what happened at the very end of class that completely melted my heart and made me know I was on the right life path. A girl who had lost an astonishing ten pounds in five weeks through the program came up to me to hug me. She didn’t let go for a full two minutes. It really touched my heart. If that isn’t motivation enough to do this kind of work, I don’t know what is. And that is all that matters in this kind of work. If I could possibly be one force of good that changes a child’s life direction from one of disease and pain to one of health and vitality, then I have done something great with my life.

And I have White Memorial Medical Center, Beth Zachary, and the staff in the Diabetes Department to thank for all of that. They have given me a rare and special opportunity to truly make a difference in a child’s life. And for that, I am grateful. If you are interested in volunteering for this wonderful program, please contact me at supatrahanna@yahoo.com. Currently, I am working with Professor Hillstrom to establish a contract with CSULA and White Memorial where her students can have the opportunity to come and volunteer and receive credit for Community Nutrition. Please contact Professor Hillstrom or myself for more information.

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