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Community Advisory Board celebrates 10 years of healthy living in Brownsville

HOUSTON – (Jan. 8, 2014) – It’s been ten years since The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health launched its Community Advisory Board in Brownsville, and those ten years were marked with a celebration for the success of this collaboration in the Rio Grande Valley.

In 2003, two years after the School of Public Health’s Brownsville Regional Campus opened, the Community Advisory Board (CAB) was born of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a way to connect the community with the school. It was designed to share research and obtain vital feedback from local partners about work that came from the Hispanic Health Research Center and other projects by the Brownsville campus.

Funding for the board also came from the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences, an NIH project designed to facilitate research at UTHealth, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Memorial Hermann Hospital System. The Brownsville campus’s center focuses on obesity-reduction strategies that can be disseminated broadly. 

“At the initial CAB meetings, there was a strong sentiment that we needed to do more than just learn about the problem,” said Joseph McCormick, M.D., Ph.D., regional dean of the Brownsville campus. “With soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, we urgently needed to get the word out to our community, but also needed to work on solutions based on successful evidence-based approaches along with real stories of individuals.”

The board is comprised of local leaders from nonprofits, school districts, city and county government, corporations, hospital administrators and other community members who are interested in working together to improve community health. A leadership team of five people sets the agenda and runs the meetings, but the board’s activities are accomplished in subcommittees.

“When the CAB began, it was just considered a part of our NIH grant, but once we realized the need that it filled, it grew to be an effective and helpful initiative for the community,” said Lisa Mitchell-Bennett, quality assurance coordinator and senior research associate at The University of Texas School of Public Health Brownsville Regional Campus.

The CAB has provided a medium for community members to voice their input in the decisions that affect their overall health. One of the first ideas to emerge from this partnership was the implementation of a community-wide local media campaign, Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!. This initiative involved weekly segments with local Spanish media outlets. These segments highlighted community role models who were making healthy changes and also allowed a medium to translate important research findings to the public. The program has since expanded to include English media outlets and social media channels.

Community health workers, or promotoras, became a part of the CAB in 2005, when the board was looking for ways to distribute public health information at a local level while building relationships with the people they reached. The workers began by distributing Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! newsletters, and their role has grown to include organizing exercise groups, gathering research data, teaching diabetes self-management classes, and even advocating for policy changes. ”They are truly the heart and soul of our campaign,” said McCormick, who holds a James H. Steele Professorship.

“These health workers were able to understand the culture and context of the people they reached, provide social support and help people identify the changes they wanted to make,” said Mitchell-Bennett. The community health workers program has been a valuable asset to the public health efforts in Brownsville.

Community health workers have also worked to prevent diabetes and cancer through the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and University of Texas Community Outreach (UTCO) funded initiatives, which encourage healthy eating and physical activity.

Another goal of the CAB was to educate local children about healthy behaviors. The CAB supported a program called Coordinated Approach To Cardiovascular Health (CATCH) in Brownsville schools. This program trains elementary physical education teachers, food service personnel, teachers and parents to increase physical activity and healthy food choices and prevent tobacco use. The program changes the child’s environment to create positive changes. “It has been so successful, that the middle school program is now being implemented and the CAB is helping to disseminate the program more broadly in the region,” said Belinda Reininger, Ph.D., associate professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health Brownsville Regional Campus.

Established in 2008, the Brownsville Farmer’s Market has been another successful initiative by the CAB. The market was created because community members were not eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. The market has been expanded partially through grants written by the School of Public Health including programs to accept food stamps and distribute farm fresh vouchers as incentives for healthy eating. The establishment of community gardens to generate income and increase local consumption of fruits and vegetables has been part of that expansion.

CAB mini grants have funded gardens for schools and expanded wellness programs for teachers and students in the area.  

Lack of physical activity was another barrier to public health in Brownsville. Part of the issue was the lack of safe, accessible and affordable places to exercise. CAB leaders noticed that parks were not fully utilized.  For example, mothers would take their children to the park and would sit and watch their kids play rather than be active. In response, the community built a walking trail around the playground to help parents get activity while monitoring their children. Mitchell-Bennett said this led to daily walking groups, installation of lights around the track, and eventually free exercise classes taught by leaders at local churches, schools and community centers

In 2010, the CAB and the School of Public Health partnered with the City Parks and Recreation Department and the Department of State Health Services to create the Buena Vida Play Park, where children in lower income neighborhoods can be active while staying safe.

With funding from a Transforming Texas grant from the Department of State Health Services received in 2012, the CAB began focusing even more on creating a physical environment to foster healthy living. They redesigned streets to encourage bicycle and pedestrian use and created community wide events like CycloBia and Build a Better Block to allow for safe and fun physical activities.

In one of the largest collaborations yet, the CAB proposed a weight loss challenge to the City of Brownsville based on the popular television program “The Biggest Loser.” This challenge has engaged thousands of community members who participate in weigh-ins, are provided support, information and accountability. Local businesses provide free gym memberships, prizes and classes. Weekend events are organized and motivational text messages are sent throughout the four month challenge. The community even broke a Guinness World Record for the most people doing Zumba at a time. This challenge is now an annual activity in Brownsville.

A major concern in the Rio Grande Valley has been the lack of exposure to career opportunities and higher education for young people. To address this problem, the CAB worked with the four institutions of higher education in the region including the School of Public Health to create internships that paired students with faculty members for research opportunities. This program, called the Rio Grande Valley Summer Science Internship, has served 103 high school students since 2006 and has successfully encouraged young people to pursue higher education, said Reininger.

Due to the hard work of the CAB, the City of Brownsville has made it to the final round of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Roadmaps to Health Prize. This honor is awarded annually to outstanding community efforts and partnerships that are helping people live healthier lives. Winning communities each receive a $25,000 cash prize and have their success stories celebrated and shared broadly with the goal of raising awareness and inspiring locally-driven change across the country. The six winning communities will be announced in June.

“The Community Advisory Board has been so successful in Brownsville that similar campaigns are spreading to nine municipalities throughout Cameron County,” said McCormick. Community leaders and government officials in these towns are beginning the important conversations about health and how to reach out to their own community members.

The CAB has not finished its work. This group has goals to educate families about obesity, encourage physical activity among people of all ages, and continue improving health policies and promotion throughout the Valley.

Hannah Rhodes
Media Contact: 713-500-3030