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.


It Takes a Village: One Center Helps Entire Families Thrive

When her daughter Pearl was seven-months-old, Shyera Gaston set out on a search for a daycare service in her neighborhood. Shyera had recently decided to continue her education to support her growing family.

Hoping to heal others with her hands, Shyera, who was 22 at the time, excitedly enrolled in school to study massage therapy. Establishing her career was a high priority for Shyera, but finding a safe, reliable caretaker to watch Pearl was top of mind.

After striking out with local babysitters, Shyera found an opening at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning’s North Lawndale site, an educational center serving children ages 0 to 15 and their families.

Though Shyera simply sought daycare services, she ultimately found a range of critical supports to help her navigate other life challenges. In hindsight, Shyera said the foundation the Center created for her family enabled her to be a stronger parent for Pearl and, eventually, her son LeTroy.

“[The center] has given me a sense of security in my life. When I felt like I didn’t have anybody else to keep my kids, I was able to bring them here,” Shyera said. “I’ve been able to talk to people when I need to. But ultimately, it’s been the fact that I’ve been able to trust them, which allows me to do what I need to do as a single mom.”

Open year round, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, a United Way community partner, provides center-based and home-based early childhood programs, school-age programming for youth and extensive support services to hundreds of families on the West Side of Chicago. They serve both English and Spanish-speaking families, as well as children with special needs.

Situated in large building with classrooms, a library and computer lab, the learning center functions much like a traditional school. On any given day, students can be found singing in music class, reading books in a huddle with their teachers or riding tricycles in their play room.

Shyera said the center greatly prepared Pearl, who is now 5, for kindergarten and instilled in her a love of learning. LeTroy, 3, has also seen strong growth in his time at Carole Robertson Center for Learning, Shyera said. “He talks a lot more, he speaks Spanish and he’s very polite,” she proudly shared. “He just has a really bright personality, and this program has helped him with that because they’re very interactive with him.”

In addition to preparing youth for academics, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning establishes a strong foundation for the entire family by pairing parents with family support specialists to help them create goals and plans to achieve them. The support specialists assist with families’ ongoing challenges, like accessing employment opportunities, mental health services and parental development workshops.

“We address the entire family’s needs. If the family is doing well, the child will do well, too,” said Sonia Perez Gandara, the center’s resource development, grant and publications specialist.

Families who are struggling or who live in underserved communities typically don’t deal with a singular issue. By only meeting one need, rather than addressing the multitude of contributing factors, it’s difficult for a family to reach their full potential. If a child has access to quality school programming, but their parent doesn’t have a job to provide for their basic needs, they’re not set up for success.   It takes a network of community supports and services to wrap around the family and assist them on a variety of levels.

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we partner with agencies like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning to not only prepare individuals for success, but to serve the entire household.

That was the case for Shyera. Her children’s enrollment in the program has provided her with the foundation for her career to flourish, while also providing her care to address the interpersonal violence in her home.

“Honestly, I was going through a very hard time [when I started bringing my daughter here.] I was dealing with domestic violence. And I felt like I needed to talk to somebody, but not somebody that is biased about the situation,” Shyera shared.

“I ended up talking to a counselor here for awhile. It reassured me that I’d be okay and that I’m a very strong,” Shyera added. “When I was talking to her, she was telling me that I’m strong and a very bright person and that I’m going to overcome that battle.” 

With her children settled at the learning center and her emotional health being cared for, Shyera’s career was able to flourish. Since Pearl first arrived at the center, Shyera’s finished her studies, earned her massage license and secured a position working as a massage therapist.

“If I didn’t have the center in my life, I wouldn’t be able to be the massage therapist that I am today. Without the help of the center I wouldn’t have been able to move forward,” Shyera said. “I can just freely be the mom that I need to be.”

Fathers Group Transforms Families’ Futures

When Lavelle Shaffer’s first son was born in August 2015, the young West Chicago native was struggling. He became homeless earlier that year after a dispute with family and had only recently found an apartment to call home.

Those first few days, Lavelle stayed by his partner’s side night in and night out, the first display of the care and commitment he has made to his children ever since. “We were trying to figure our stuff out, but we were living on our own for the first time,” Lavelle said.

While he and his partner bonded over Noah’s birth, a caseworker visiting the new parents offered Lavelle, now 26, another bond in his life – a “brotherhood” of young fathers also seeking guidance on life and parenthood.

Since opening its doors in 2002, the Gerst Family Young Fathers Program hosted by Metropolitan Family Services, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, has helped men across Chicago become employed and financially independent and to raise healthy children. The long-term, comprehensive program offers an array of services and takes a holistic approach to address the fathers’ needs.

“A lot of people have the idea that these guys are deadbeats or don’t want to do for their children,” MFS case manager Nathan Wright said of the fathers, some of whom are ex-offenders. “One of the things we’re doing is getting these guys off the streets and giving them a chance to show their worth to their families, to the mother’s family and to their community. Now, they feel so good about themselves.”


Upon their enrollment in the program, fathers commit to intensive training that teaches them how to craft a resume, prepare for interviews, utilize common computer programs and conduct job searches. They’re then supplied with a suit, bus fare and other essentials, like a trip to the barber for a haircut and shave, to prepare them to find a living wage position with benefits.

Young Fathers’ job-placement rate sits at a remarkable 97 percent of participants, with fathers securing jobs at local hospitals, stores, museums, businesses and security companies, as well as the Chicago Transportation Authority and the City of Chicago.  “From day one, it’s been great for me,” said Felix Dotson, a six-year participant of the program and father to a 12-year-old daughter. “It was hard before, putting the bills on my significant other and taking care of my baby. It made me feel so good to accomplish something.”  

After three years of unemployment following the recession, Felix, 36, went through the job-training program. The Bronzeville father now works in bus service maintenance for the CTA, where he recently earned a promotion, an advancement he excitedly welcomed.

In addition to the workforce training, fathers are also offered a range of additional services, including workshops on positive parenting, healthy relationships with co-parents, stress management, domestic violence prevention and parental rights. Nathan and MFS also help the men secure stable housing – even covering certain fees associated with moving and finding them furniture – and provide necessities for their kids, like strollers and diapers. “It’s a partnership. You make a step, I make a step,” Nathan said of his dynamic with the fathers.

Though the program goes above and beyond to invest in the men, both Lavelle and Felix acknowledge it takes strong commitment from the fathers to make the most of what’s being offered. “Young Fathers helps you if you help yourself,” Felix said. “There’s only so much they can do to help you. They can’t come in and hold your hand in an interview and make you say the right things. It’s what you put into it.”


Having completed many of the trainings, Lavelle mostly utilizes the program for counseling services and mentorship from Nathan and other members. Though he’s balancing parenthood with work and preparing for his entrance exams for the Chicago Police Academy, while currently living in a shelter apartment due to water damage in his own home – Lavelle’s found a support system to tackle the challenges he’s facing.

“I took the positives I learned from my father and learned the rest from Young Fathers,” Lavelle said. “I was soaking it in. The more opportunities I learned about, I took it in and made myself a better father.”

In addition to desiring a living wage and benefits to support his family, Lavelle aims to turn Nathan’s investment into a lifeline for his neighbors and others in the world. As a police officer, Lavelle seeks to enhance community relations and help connect people to social services and mentors, like the fathers’ program.

Felix, who was first introduced to program by a friend, also hopes to pay it forward. He seeks out other fathers who are struggling to find work and encourages them to join the program. “If you wanna change for yourself, this program will help you,” Felix said. “You never know about your job or whether you’ll have family problems, but you always have the Young Fathers program to go back to.”


While securing life’s necessities is the program’s focal point, it also prioritizes the need for family fun and connection. The program’s coordinators host annual family outings, like zoo tours and picnics, for the participants, their significant others and children to enjoy. On Thursday, the Young Fathers program hosted their annual banquet and invited the men and their families for a meal and celebration of their accomplishments.

Sitting at his first banquet in 2016, Lavelle turned over his program to find he’d been awarded Father of the Year and a $1,000 scholarship for his son, an acknowledgement that still brings a smile to his face two years later.

“I was in school, working two part-time jobs,” Lavelle reminisced. “They were all smiling at me. That felt good to be acknowledged, even if it was for something I should be doing.”

Last week, sitting in Grant Park on a warm evening, Lavelle exuded excitement for the next night’s festivities. It would be the first time he and his fiancé would have a night out without the kids, and he couldn’t wait to put his suit on again.