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Activate Hawaiian Gardens Successfully Completes First Phase of Obesity–Reduction Program

The longest journey begins with a single step. – Chinese proverb

Some parents came to learn how to change their family’s diets and improve their eating habits; some came because diabetes runs in their families; still others came because they wanted to take control of their unhealthy lifestyle.

Whatever their reason, the Hawaiian Gardens parents came with open minds and a passion to learn new approaches to better eating, exercise, nutrition facts and about making more healthful decisions for their families. The parents were taking the first step on a long-term journey to stamp out childhood obesity in the community,all thanks to a collaborative community program called Activate Hawaiian Gardens.

The first phase of Activate Hawaiian Gardens brought almost 60 parents of kindergarten students from the four elementary schools in Hawaiian Gardens to weekly classroom sessions taught by a team of local health specialists. The sessions were presented in both English and Spanish and were conducted by trained educators (promotoras, the Spanish term for community health educators).

The most effective way to make long-term changes in childhood obesity is to begin in the home and school, said Alexander Khananashvili, Wellness Program Coordinator at Tri-City Regional Medical Center and creator of Activate Hawaiian Gardens. Parents and teachers are the key influencers for children. We began our program by empowering parents to make better decisions about their family’s health. The parents who joined the program were exited to learn and motivated to make positive changes. It marked a great beginning to the effort, he said.

Before local parents began participating in weekly classroom instruction, officials from Tri-City Regional Medical Center recorded baseline health statistics among the kindergarteners at the City’s four elementary schools: Aloha, Furgeson, Hawaiian and Melbourne. About 300 children were measured for Body Mass Index (BMI), the recognized standard measurement for obesity.

The parents’ weekly educational sessions covered a wide range of healthy-based information, from how to read food labels, the difference between good and bad fats and sugar consumption to learning how to manage food issues with their children, options for junk and fast food and how to positively influence TV and video games usage, among others.

Home and school are the places that set the tone for positive change of lifestyle behaviors, said Khananashvili. The parents were excited to implement some of their knowledge with their kindergartners right away and that is a great first step.

He emphasized that kindergartners are the perfect first audience for positive lifestyle changes. They are at an age when new information is very receptive, and they take that information to heart immediately, he said. Already, I have had some of the kindergartner children share stories of positive lifestyle changes that they have made based on information they learned from their parents. That’s amazing, but not surprising. They brains are ‘sponges’ at this age.

Because the local schools and their teachers play such an integral role in creating change among the students’ behavior, curriculum modifications were also recommended in the launch of Activate /Hawaiian Gardens. Khananashvili, working with school administrators, principals and teachers, suggested 5-10 minutes of nutritional and diet education three times (3X) each week during classroom instruction as well as increased physical activity.

In designing Activate Hawaiian Gardens, Khananashvili, who got his medical degree from Moscow Medical School, spent two years researching scientific evidence from around the world about reversing childhood obesity trends from a public health perspective, particularly in disadvantaged and ethnic communities. He developed the program and related materials, and sought support and participation in this obesity reduction program from the local school district, ABC Unified School District as well as leadership from the City of Hawaiian Gardens.

After concluding the multi-week classroom sessions, parents (joined by their children) were presented special certificates of completion of the first phase of Activate Hawaiian Gardens by leaders of the program, including ABC Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Mary Sieu, ABC Board of Education Vice President Sophia Tse, Board Members Olympia Chen and Linda Johnson  as well as former state legislator Tony Mendoza, who serves as a senior program advisor to the program, and Victor Farfan, Mayor of Hawaiian Gardens and Mike Gomez, Mayor Pro-Tem of the City of Hawaiian Gardens. Also on hand to present special certificates of recognition to the parents were officials from local elected leaders, including Luis Gonzalez, District Representative  from Senator Ronald Calderon, and Ronald Gonzales-Lawrence, Deputy District Director of Assembly Member Anthony Rendon. The certificates were from Member of U.S. Congress Linda T. Sanchez, State of California Senator Ronald S. Calderon, Supervisor Don Knabe, and California Assembly Member  Anthony Rendon.

After the special graduation ceremony at Furgeson Elementary School, parents and their families joined others to talk and share stories about the positive changes that they have already made. After walking off the stage, some moms and their children walked over to Khananashvili to show them their collection of certificates and gave him a big hug. Look, doctor, I have already started to lose some of this, said a child with his mom, pinching his side. Everyone beamed.

A little loss is a great beginning.