The mostly Latino southern area of Santa Ana, Calif., had limited places to be active—and not a single park. Desperate for more active spaces to give them more chances to get fit and avoid disease and obesity, residents pushed for and received a new park, Corazones Verdes Park. While park construction remained underway, members of Latino Health Access sought alternative active spaces. That’s when they came up with the idea of creating a Wellness Corridor through downtown Santa Ana. Now partners from across the city are discussing ways to make the community more walkable, and residents of all ages are learning to effectively voice the need for healthy options.
Awareness: America Bracho, a Venezuelan-born physician and public health advocate for the Latino community of south Santa Ana, has inspired change for over 20 years.
In 1993 Bracho founded Latino Health Access (LHA), a non-profit group that uses a community-based approach to tackle the greatest health challenges faced by Latinos in Santa Ana.
Under the LHA model, promotores are trained to lead health initiatives and provide free local courses, like diabetes management. Class participants are taught the importance of regular physical activity and eating fresh fruits and veggies.
The classes, however, weren’t leading to healthier lifestyles.
“We started to see a pattern of people responding and saying, ‘Well I know these are the things I have to do, but I don’t have places in my community where I can safely exercise and I can’t afford to get on the bus to go somewhere farther,’” said Nancy Mejia, a coordinator with the Latino Health Access community engagement and advocacy department.
These barriers were paving way for diabetes and other diseases.
“If these are the types of barriers diabetics face, then what about their children and grandchildren?” Mejia said.
Learn:To learn more, the Latino Health Access team planned a neighborhood assessment in 2003.
“There isn’t enough data on health at the neighborhood level,” Mejia said. “You have some at the census tract level, some at the zip code level and so we decided to do our own assessment.”
Promotores physically visited 150 different households and soon learned that most children did not have a safe place to play. About 225 parents said they had children diagnosed as obese or at risk for diabetes.
About 75% of parents also reported feeling it was unsafe to do physical activity after dark.
“That’s when we see more gang-related crime, so parents have to make a choice between keeping their kids at home safe or going outside,” Mejia said.
A lack of place spaces also promoted inactivity.
“There’s such a lack of open spaces in Santa Ana,” Mejia said. “We have neighborhoods that are so densely populated and there’s a lot of concentrated poverty, so there’s a lack of spaces where kids can run and be active.”
Frame Issue:A few years earlier, LHA and a group of local residents succeeded in bringing a much needed park to the area. The process of getting a park had not been an easy one. In fact, it took almost 10 years of tireless work before the park opened in the summer of 2013. Fortunately, through this process local residents learned about civic engagement and working together to address community needs.
While the park remained under construction, LHA wanted to provide alternatives for members of the community to be active.
LHA established a community engagement and advocacy department some years before and had moved into a new building closer to downtown Santa Ana in 2011. The new location put the organization near businesses, schools, churches, a public library, community centers, a soon-to-be-ready park, and many historical sites.
“We would see a lot of moms walking to our building,” Mejia said.
But how could the community take full advantage of this strategic location?
This got Bracho and the LHA team thinking and soon the idea of developing a wellness corridor—or an open space for the community to walk and ride bikes—was born.
Education/Mobilization: To make a wellness corridor, the LHA team sought allies and funding.
LHA leaders reached out to elected officials. Promotores contacted businesses, artists, and residents.
The team explained to stakeholders how a corridor could provide residents with a safe place to be active, and expose them to local businesses and art.
“We saw it as a win-win for everybody, because you’re bridging sectors,” Mejia said. “You’re also getting more people out to this area, which is a business district, and part of that also includes working closely with those that sell food, to make sure there are healthy options.”
Soon with funding from St. Joseph’s Health System and a $450,000 grant from the James Irving Foundation, the LHA team created a multi-sectorial coalition.
The first meeting, which took place in September 2012 and was open to the public, had 50 local residents, city planners and parks officials, school officials and arts center and business district representatives.
At the meeting the group agreed to support a corridor and formed a steering committee to get to work.
Debate:The original plan for the corridor involved just 0.6 miles of land; however as more partners joined the steering committee, others wanted to be included as well.
Committee members suggested the corridor include the public library, the train station, local schools, and the artist village. Soon the group was looking at including a total of 3.1 miles for the corridor.
“The idea was if there are interesting things that you’re going to see as you walk and bike there, then you’re more likely to go through there,” Mejia said.
Another issue that came up during discussions with partners was the fear of displacement from one’s home as a result of the economic revitalization taking place in downtown Santa Ana.
“It becomes a community-building initiative as well,” Mejia said. “So you have groups that would not normally collaborate, but they all come to the same table to talk about building this corridor that’s going to promote healthy options.”
Activation: Calls and emails were sent for monthly steering committee meetings.
Still, Mejia says many community members were so committed to seeing the corridor become a reality that they didn’t even need a reminder.
Members discussed their desire for more walkability. They also hoped to see water fountains, bike lanes, Complete Streets—streets designed with all road users in mind—benches and public restrooms along the corridor. They wanted smaller changes to lead to bigger changes.
Frame Policy: The group was eager for the corridor to become a reality, but knew it may take time.
So they created a plan of action.
Phase 1 was getting the coalition going and generating community support.
Phase 2 sought to get 30,000 residents civically engaged in the creation of the corridor, increase transportation opportunities through the city’s general plan, and create a health and wellness element.
Phase 3 would form a 100-resident core group that could continue mobilizing the community and creating policy actions.
Change: The wellness corridor became a reality with the placement of mile-marker-type signs by the American Heart Association. Local businesses also posted new signs in their windows to show the corridor.
A new map denoted the corridor.
The map features five different routes, water fountains, bathrooms, benches, parks, community centers and healthy stops along the way:
- An Art Route, Ruta de Arte (0.8 miles);
- A Kick-off Route, Ruta de Inauguración (1.5 miles);
- A Scholar’s Route, Ruta Escolar (2.1 miles);
- An Athlete’s Route, Ruta de Atletas (2.85 miles); and
- A Bike Route, Ruta de Bici (9.2 miles).
Implementation: A corridor kick-off event occurred Nov. 15-16, 2013.
More than 1,000 people showed up to support the corridor and participate in community activities, from a pop-up cinema at the park to a Latin art and culture presentation under the stars at the Murales Bajo las Estrellas event.
Other festivities included a bike ride, walking tours, dance performances, healthy food demos, a mercadito (market), a resource fair, and live music.
As they walked down the corridor, groups of women held hand-painted signs and banners that read: Wellness Corridor and “LHA Grupo de Ejercicio, Si Se Puede” (LHA Exercise Group, Yes We Can) to express their excitement in having this healthy space.
Children performed ballet folklorico and teens wore neon on green shirts and vests to catch the attention of drivers. Locals were invited to participate in Zumba and elected officials from the state, county and city showed-up to express their support to the community.
“There are residents of all ages participating, we have youth, seniors, and this is exciting for them because they see themselves in it,” Mejia said.
Equity/Sustainability: Since the inaugural event, walking and biking groups continue to ride along the corridor and new groups like the Undisputed Champ Boxing Club have been added to the wellness corridor.
The steering committee still meets every month at LHA and community members are organizing monthly walks and bike rides the third Saturday of every month.
According to Mejia, Santa Ana’s first Bike Coalition was recently formed and now there seems to be an organized interest for improving Santa Ana’s bike system.
“This project has given us the opportunity to meet new folks and have conversations around improving the bike infrastructure,” Mejia said. “It’s neat because I feel like we’re treading new grounds, so it continues to be a work in progress.”
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
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