Healthy Kids Resource Fair Opens Doors to Good Health

Presently, more than 70,000 Chicago Public Schools students who are eligible for health insurance lack coverage. That’s 20 percent of students in one of the largest school districts in the country.

Through a new initiative called Opening Doors, United Way of Metro Chicago and CPS aim to reduce that number. By directly connecting families to healthcare navigators,  they’re able to help parents research, identify and enroll in health insurance plans. This approach effectively simplifies a process that often deters low-income families from accessing vital care. 

With a goal of enrolling 10,000 students in Medicaid and Marketplace health insurance over the next two years, United Way and CPS, in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, hosted on Saturday its first Healthy Kids Resource Fair. This free event allowed neighborhood  students and their families to meet with navigators and explore other health and household resources.

Stationed in Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin, booths of more than a dozen non-profits and businesses lined the hallways, offering a range of services and information. Vendors were on hand to help attendees with everything from reducing utility costs to counseling to enrolling families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“One of the greatest challenges with closing the gap between eligible and enrolled children and families has been limited enrollment staff within schools and a lack of accessible enrollment sites across many communities,” said Jose Rico, senior vice president of Community Impact at United Way of Metro Chicago. “The Opening Doors Initiative is enabling us to widen our reach across neighborhoods and provide increased opportunities for enrollment education and assistance.”


Promoting healthy lifestyles

As part of the resource fair, Matt Forte, a former Chicago Bears football player and United Way ambassador, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository teamed up to teach students, including athletes from Michele Clark High School and community members, the importance of adapting a healthy lifestyle.

While whipping up a kale and apple salad in a cooking demo, Matt broke down the benefits of making healthy food choices, like adding dark greens into your diet to improve energy and reduce deadly health conditions like heart disease. “It’s important to educate these kids on how important health is,” Matt said. “Unfortunately, in the Chicago area, the resources and educational aspect of healthy eating and living is not so prevalent in certain communities.” 

Matt’s lessons of football and healthy lifestyles were well-received by the young athletes in the audience, including Lamont Pringle, a student basketball player at Michele Clark High School. “I learned new things about kale and new ways to use it,” Lamont said before heading back to the court. “It was helpful, and it’ll help me improve my game. And it actually tasted good.”

Following the demo, community members were sent home with samples, apples and recipes to make the salad and other healthy dishes at home.

As the newest United Way of Metro Chicago ambassador, Matt is excited to work with United Way and CPS to promote healthy living in communities that often lack access to quality goods and to improve the number of students and parents enrolled in healthcare. A father of three and long-time athlete, Matt views access to healthcare as the foundation for educational and life success.

“Some students don’t see doctors for an entire year or they don’t have a healthcare provider. That translates back to graduation rates and being attentive in class,” Matt said. “If you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to perform well no matter what you’re doing, whether that’s sports or education.”

Those within the school system share similar sentiments.

“Children  with unaddressed vision, dental, hearing or mental health problems do not perform in school as well as they could, said CPS Chief Health Officer Dr. Kenneth L. Fox “We want to prevent health problems from occurring and eliminate health-related barriers to learning. We must act to get kids covered, and Opening Doors helps us take action in ways that matter now and have profound impact over a student’s life course.”


Looking forward to healthier futures

United Way and CPS recognize that there’s still much work to be done. The Opening Doors Initiative is focused on four networks with the greatest need – Networks 1, 2, 3 and 10 – where additional trained healthcare navigators are serving children and families in schools and community-based organizations.

At United Way, we believe that schools should be “community hubs” were students and families can find life supports in addition to a quality education. The Opening Doors Initiative is intended to meet families where they are, and, in turn, make healthcare enrollment more accessible than ever to these communities.

“We see schools as a community engagement hub, a location where community can come in and be serviced in many different aspects – not just through educational curriculum but anything from enrollment in health insurance to behavioral health services,” said Sergio Obergon, manager of CPS’ Children and Family Benefits Unit in the Office of Student Health and Wellness.


Spicing Up Healthy Living: Promoting Healthy Lifestyles through Latin Dance

In an old, brick-walled gym flooded with morning sunlight, dozens of women sporting colorful workout clothes were breaking a sweat in Miguel Murillo’s Latin dance class.

Following his lead, the women danced the Salsa, Mambo and Cha-Cha, mixed with Zumba and other hip-hop moves, as drum beats pulsed through the speaker system.

Hosted by the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center in Chicago Heights, the women, ranging in age from early-20s to 60s, meet three days a week to exercise to improve their health, address potential or existing health conditions, and promote healthy lifestyles for their families.

For more than 100 years, the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, has worked to strengthen family ties and answer community needs, including creating an environment for children and families to learn and succeed.

In past years, families in the area began asking for opportunities to get healthy. In response, one year ago, the center began offering the dance class for women   who were eager to exercise and relieve stress. It’s been spicing up the lives of residents ever since.

Preventing, responding to health conditions

In a city where nearly 30 percent of residents are obese, many communities of color and those in poverty fare the worst.  

Children in Chicago have higher overweight and obesity prevalence rates than children across the U.S. in the same age groups. In fact, nearly 30 percent of Chicago 6th graders are obese, and the obesity rates in these children were highest among black and Hispanic communities.

Leadership at the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center hopes to change that narrative by expanding the opportunities available to its residents in Chicago Heights, a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, and surrounding communities. They recognize that to promote healthy lifestyles for children, they must promote healthy lifestyles for the entire family.

“In low income areas, we find there’s high obesity rates. We struggle with eating healthy and exercising. [The dance class] is a way to offer an opportunity to those in the community,” said Mark Goesel, program director for the community center. 

In its short tenure, the class has already made a lasting difference in the lives of women like Maria Lopez*, a local Latina woman who reported weight issues and a poor diet.

Last year, Maria was told by her doctor that she was at risk of acquiring Type II Diabetes. When she received that warning, she knew she had to make a change.

Maria, who regularly brought her kids to the Jones Center’s youth programs, expressed an interest in developing a healthier lifestyle to the center’s Assistant Director Juana Morales. In turn, Juana connected Maria to the center’s new Latin Dance class.

Maria discovered she really enjoyed the workouts, as well as the camaraderie of being with other women from the community. Since it didn’t feel like exercise, Maria hardly missed a class.

In addition to being overweight, she admitted that her diet was low in fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins, so she supplemented her new workouts with nutrition classes offered at the Jones Center through the University of Illinois Extension programs. There, she learned the basics of clean eating and substituting snack foods and soda with fruits and vegetables.

After eight months of participating in the Latin dance and nutrition classes, Maria lost 36 pounds and reported that her energy level was much higher. At her next doctor’s visit, her fasting blood sugar finally fell in the normal range.  

Open to all

Unlike a pricey gym membership, the Jones Center classes, held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays, are free to the public. For many parents, that is a welcome relief.

The women are also encouraged to bring their infants and toddlers along if they cannot afford a babysitter, further lessening their financial burden and removing barriers to participating. 

“Money doesn’t have to stop you from being healthy,” said Cecilia Sotelo, who drives 30 minutes from her home in Harvey to participate in the class. She lets others in her community know about the program, too.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of friends and passing along the information. If they want, they can be healthy and it’s free,” Cecilia said. 

Promoting family health

In addition to giving their parents an opportunity to work out, the children’s attendance at the class also exposes them to healthy lifestyles. By watching their mothers routinely prioritize and engage in fun, energetic exercise, the center hopes the children will adapt their own positive exercise habits.

“They bring their kids and the little ones are seeing their parents doing exercise and it encourages them to follow their steps,” Juana said. “We have mothers and daughters who are coming together to exercise, too.”

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we are committed to improving the lives of children and families through robust health initiatives lead by community partners who prioritize healthy lifestyles for the entire family, like the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center.

 Because when families are healthier, communities, like Chicago Heights, can thrive.