HealthCorps helps high schoolers learn healthy lifestyle tips


Special to The Miami Herald

While Alexandria Walden slices a pineapple in cubes, Gabriela Garcia cuts a banana. The two Booker T. Washington High students —Alexandria is a freshman, Gabriela is a sophomore — are preparing a parfait, complete with yogurt and granola.

On the table across from their work station, Kashia Kencey and Christian Shephard, both 14, are scrambling eggs and slicing tomatoes for wheat bread sandwiches with basil. Kashia is a student at Miami Arts Charter and Christian attends Monsignor Edward Pace High in Opa-locka.

The students are part of the weekly Overtown Youth Center cooking class, where about 20 students from local high schools learn to make meals that, for the most part, are not part of their everyday diet. From mussels and jambalaya to guacamole and pumpkin pancakes, the menu reads like a trendy, four-star restaurant.

“A lot of them are like, ‘I’ve never tried this before. It’s something new to them and they never thought they would like certain stuff,” said Adler Dorvilus, who teaches the cooking class.

The class is part of the national HealthCorps program, a nonprofit founded in 2003 by cardiothoracic surgeon, author and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa. HealthCorps strives to teach U.S. high school students about nutrition, exercise and the value of leading healthier lifestyles.

Dorvilus, the HealthCorps coordinator at Booker T. Washington, said his efforts are paying off.

“Last year they were like, ‘I am not eating wheat bread.’ This time I didn’t hear that,” he said after the cooking class. “I didn’t see anyone take the basil out or take the tomato out.”

HealthCorps coordinators like Dorvilus are in 66 schools throughout 14 states and the District of Columbia. In 2008, Booker T. and Hialeah high schools were included in the HealthCorps program — the only Miami-Dade County schools that participate.

HealthCorps targets schools in lower socio-economic areas, said Shawn Hayes, HealthCorps’ chief academic officer. Coordinators are present at schools where 50 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced lunch. At Hialeah High, 88 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to Caridad Curbelo, office assistant at the school. At Booker T. Washington, 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, Dorvilus said.

“The schools we are in are really high-need schools,” said Hayes. “You are not going to have a Williams-Sonoma around Hialeah High.”

HealthCorps is funded through grants, foundations, fundraisers and corporate sponsors, such as Kashi Foods, which distributes its products for free to schools. California and New Jersey governments also contribute funds to HealthCorps programs in their states, Hayes said.

Unlike many health programs that are fighting obesity in U.S. kids, HealthCorps does not target obese or overweight children. It is an all-inclusive four-year program that strives to give the students the tools and confidence to change their lifestyle for life.

“Many, many people go on diets, and they do OK for a while but they can’t stick to it,” said Hayes. “It’s easy to say but hard to do. They don’t understand that these kinds of changes require mental strength.”

Mental strength

Indeed, mental strength is one of the three pillars — the others being healthy eating and exercise — on which HealthCorps is based.

“It’s not always about apples and how many push-ups they can do,” said Alli Reid, Hialeah High School HealthCorps coordinator. “The mental strength is most important because if a kid is not confident, they are just not going to go to the gym.”

Often, that extends beyond giving students the confidence to work out and eat well.

“They come crying to me a lot,” said Reid, who has listened to problems from breakups with boyfriends, to home issues to remarks that sting. “High school is hard. I teach them that those little comments are just comments.”

Reid leads the Thursday after-school Girls’ Club, where about 50 teenage girls gather.

When 15-year-old Annia Negrin became a freshman at Hialeah High School, she lacked self-esteem.

“I thought I was weird and no one would talk to me,” she said. “I would talk to Alli, and she would tell me to always be myself. It helped me because I started thinking more positive about myself.”

Like other HealthCorps coordinators, Reid and Dorvilus are in their early 20s, making them easy to approach.

“We are not that much older than they are. Even if it is something bad that they are doing, they can come talk to us. We are not going to judge them,” said Dorvilus, 23.

Coordinators teach about 10 classes a week, getting the students involved in cooking, exercising, health fairs and even planting gardens. Fun and healthy competition are one of the key ingredients.

During lunch at Booker T. Washington, Dorvilus sets up an exercise station where he prompts teens to do push-ups or sit-ups and rewards them with pieces of watermelon or bananas. Last year, students planted a garden at the school with tomatoes, broccoli and watermelon, which they incorporated into their cooking class.

At a recent health fair in the gym at Hialeah High, students taught other students what they’ve learned. Clad in black leggings, Jessica Justo, 14, showed her fellow students how to do the warrior yoga pose. Across from her, Laura DeZayas, 17, passed out parfaits, emphasizing the importance of eating breakfast.

“They are not really familiar with it (parfaits). So at first, they might be a little hesitant because of the yogurt,” said Laura.

Reading labels

Interactive class presentations also get the point across. Dorvilus had the students read the label on a can of Coke. Each can has 39 grams of sugar, equal to more than nine tablespoons. He then filled up a plastic bag with nine tablespoons of sugar, showing how much they’re consuming by drinking just one Coke.

“Physical and visual demonstrations really work on them,” he said.

Reid had the students compete in how quickly they could make breakfast — a meal teens often skip leading them to snack on chips or cookies until lunchtime. The record for making a peanut butter sandwich with a banana: 14 seconds.

“A lot of them say they don’t eat breakfast because they don’t have time,” said Reid. “But then you are telling me you don’t have 14 seconds? The best part is they come back and say, “Ms. Reid, I made the peanut butter and banana sandwich for my family.’ That’s how I know it works.”

Such presentations worked for Hialeah High School freshman Ashley Rivera, 15.

“I would never eat breakfast. I would just be hungry until lunch and then eat whatever I can — pizza, burgers, tacos,” said Ashley. “Now, I eat the wheat-bread sandwiches and they have prepared salads at school.”

“Some don’t have the means to get the ingredients,” said Dorvilus. “But I want them to be exposed to different things. It’s not about the immediate effect but how, in the long term, it will affect their lives.”

Follow @LidiaDinkova on Twitter.

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