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Our neighborhood health story: Meet the Texas nonprofit that’s transforming a community’s health, one step at a time

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

Your community shapes how long and how well you live. U.S. News & World Report recently teamed up with the Aetna Foundation to rank counties across the U.S. on factors like education, nutrition, public safety and more. Out of nearly 3,000 counties ranked, we identified and ranked the 500 healthiest communities in America. At #311, Travis County, TX, made the honor roll, but even the healthiest communities have room for improvement. In this series, we take a look at counties on the list where residents have identified a health challenge and are working to solve it with the help of a grant from the Aetna Foundation. Here, we profile two south Austin communities in Travis County that have come together to create more opportunities for physical activity and a better quality of life for their residents.

woman walking with children

Mayra Lara-Jimenez and her children walk along a busy highway near their home in south Austin, TX.

Mayra Lara-Jimenez’s home is a few blocks away from her children’s school, but until recently, the walk there was one of the most dangerous parts of her day. Nearly all of it was spent alongside North Bluff Drive, a busy two-lane road that runs through this close-knit south Austin, Texas, neighborhood. One after another, the cars whooshed by, leaving gusts of wind in their wake.

But the trickiest part of the family’s commute was the sidewalk across from school. A tangle of garbage, branches and parked cars, it was all but impassable. Parents and children who made the trip on foot were faced with a no-win situation: either climb over the debris on the sidewalk or share the street with cars. Mayra, who is blind and can’t drive, reluctantly chose the latter.

Walkability has been an ongoing issue in south Austin. Residents in these low-income, primarily Mexican American and Latino communities have complained for years about cracked sidewalks, missing crosswalks and unsafe parks. But progress has been slow. In fact, though it’s less than 10 miles from the bustling downtown, south Austin has historically been among the last parts of the city to receive investments in basic infrastructure. 

Travis County map

Obesity is an issue across all of Texas, but it’s especially common in south Austin

Without adequate walkways and safe parks, residents have few options for exercise and play, and this directly impacts their health. Diabetes is common in south and southeast Austin, and more than 50% of parents and children here are considered obese, according to a five-year study of the area. This is in stark contrast to the rest of Travis County, which boasts better-than-average rates of diabetes and obesity. According to data compiled as part of the Healthiest Communities rankings, developed as a result of a collaboration between the Aetna Foundation and U.S. News and World Report, 7.3% of adults in the county have diabetes (better than the national average of 9.3%), and 20.5% are considered obese (national average is 31%).

Rather than sit idly by, many south Austin residents have taken steps to improve conditions in their neighborhoods. Mayra is one of them. Fed up with the dangerous path and eager to provide her kids with at least two built-in walks a day, she and other concerned parents teamed up with GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA), a local nonprofit devoted to helping south Austin residents live healthier lives through access to healthy food, physical activity, school health, early childhood and community safety. Its efforts have been boosted by a recent $100,000 Cultivating Healthy Communities grant from the Aetna Foundation.

Together, GAVA and residents spent two years lodging complaints, submitting petitions and keeping their team of volunteers motivated. Their persistence paid off: Austin officials agreed to hire a crossing guard to usher families safely to school, while local businesses helped clear away branches and donated paint so children could beautify the pavement with their brightly colored handprints.

Since the sidewalk’s makeover, Mayra has noticed an uptick in the number of kids and parents who walk to school, which makes her feel happy. “The whole walking to school thing is amazing,” she says. “You have a chance to spend time with your kids, to hold their hands. Plus, it gets the blood flowing, gives you energy, lets you breathe the air and hear the birds. It’s a form of meditation. It’s therapeutic.” 

Making an impact

A renovated sidewalk may sound like a small improvement in Mayra’s neighborhood, but for GAVA, it’s a major win. Since its inception in 2012, the nonprofit has been working tirelessly to help south Austin families access healthy food and be more active. The environments where we live, work and play can serve powerful roles in shaping our health, even impacting our life expectancy by as much as 60%, according to researchers. 

The environments where we live, work and play can serve powerful roles in shaping our health, even impacting our life expectancy by as much as 60%.

Rather than impose specific changes on a community, GAVA supports initiatives that residents say are important to them. “We talk to people in these neighborhoods and find out what’s getting in the way of them living a healthy lifestyle,” says Carmen Llanes Pulido, GAVA executive director. Carmen and her team also work with community members who are ready to make improvements and empower them to organize their neighbors and affect change.

Mayra first learned about GAVA in 2016, when the group held an open meeting at her children’s school. At the time, she was frustrated about the sidewalk, but didn’t know how to go about having it fixed. After the meeting, she reached out to the organization, and has worked with them on various improvements for the last two years, including adding extended traffic lights and crosswalks to busy intersections. “GAVA has been such a good resource for us,” Mayra says. “They helped us make the connections, get the right people to our meetings, learn how to organize people and hold meetings, and how to stay persistent.”

two women pushing strollers

Mayra and other resident leaders have worked with GAVA to improve or establish crosswalks so neighbors have a safe place to walk.

To date, GAVA has helped form nearly 40 resident-led teams that focus on improving neighborhood parks and corner stores, building community gardens and trails, and establishing weekly farm stands.

Elena Rodriguez is another such community leader. A longtime resident of south Austin, she wanted to improve the nearby Dove Springs District Park. The sprawling space had fallen into disrepair. Tall grass consumed much of the land, lights had long burned out, and gangs and criminals left behind socks filled with bullet casings. Together with GAVA, Elena knocked on neighbors’ doors, assembled a team of volunteers to clean up the park, and worked with the city to secure funding for new equipment and lights. She also drew up the plans for the lighting, which the city used in the final design.

Now, the park is one of the busiest in the area, with an elaborate play structure, manicured walking trails, rock climbing walls, exercise equipment, soccer fields, a pavilion and even a zip line. On any given day, it hosts more than 100 people. Similar success is being seen in the five other parks that were also improved. 

young girl playing

Once abandoned, Dove Springs District Park is now one of the busiest in the area.

The impact of such usable recreational facilities is significant: A 2018 evaluation of GAVA found that physical activity in adults in southeast Austin doubled from 15% to 30% since the parks and playgrounds were improved. And while the obesity rate is on the rise here and throughout all of Texas, it didn’t increase as much in neighborhoods where GAVA has a strong presence.

“One of the best investments we can make as a funder is in building residents’ capacity to lead the change that’s needed in their communities,” says Amy Aparicio Clark, managing director of community impact and strategy at the Aetna Foundation. “This gives us confidence that, even after our funding ends, we’ve had a role in fundamentally changing the fabric of a place. We were impressed by GAVA’s model for putting residents at the center of identifying neighborhood needs, developing a solution and mobilizing the right stakeholders to make change happen.”

Building a bright future

An interesting thing happens when you start to improve your community’s health: you want to do more. That’s what Elena discovered after tackling the Dove Springs District Park renovation nearly five years ago. Since then, she’s worked with GAVA and her neighbors to improve another park and a creek. They’ve also worked together to promote traffic safety around two local schools, start a neighborhood watch group on several streets and place healthy food in local corner stores.

Though her work has helped residents be healthier, she says she’s benefited personally. Before the Dove Springs park project, she struggled with depression and diabetes. Now, Elena is pre-diabetic and enjoys a renewed sense of purpose and confidence. “I feel like I’m someone who matters now,” she says. “Before this project, I was depressed, anxious, unhealthy and eating lots of sugar. But now that I can go out into the community and pull people in to volunteer, I feel like I’m powerful, like I’m a leader.”

latino woman at playground

Resident leader Elena Rodriguez oversaw the renovation of Dove Springs District Park.

The impact of such usable recreational facilities is significant: A 2018 evaluation of GAVA found that physical activity in adults in southeast Austin doubled from 15% to 30% since the parks and playgrounds were improved. And while the obesity rate is on the rise here and throughout all of Texas, it didn’t increase as much in neighborhoods where GAVA has a strong presence. 

Since revamping the sidewalk in 2016, Mayra has continued fighting for changes in her community. Now that she’s had experience submitting petitions, working with the city government and organizing a team, she’s led the charge to bring amenities to two local parks, improve or add sidewalks and crosswalks around more schools, and promote nutrition initiatives.

Last fall, Mayra and her husband, Luis, also teamed up with the Police Activity League to start a free soccer program for grades K-5. Nearly 100 kids signed up in the first year. Regular practices and weekly games give the children an incentive to step away from their video games and run around outside with friends.

The program is purposely relaxed. No one keeps score, and the only time parents raise their voice is to shout encouragement from the sidelines. After all, by simply being on the field and playing, the kids are already winners. “This league helps kids develop a love for the athleticism of the sport,” Mayra says. “It can be a stepping stone for them to be more active. Now they have a soccer ball at home and can practice if they want to get better. It makes me happy to be able to give them that opportunity.”

child soccer goalie

Mayra Lara-Jimenez helped start a free soccer league in south Austin about a year ago. Since then, nearly 100 kids have signed up to play.

 

About the author

Bonnie Vengrow is a journalist based in NYC who has written for Parents, Prevention, Rodale’s Organic Life, Good Housekeeping and others. She’s never met a hiking trail she doesn’t like and is currently working on perfecting her headstand in yoga class.