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South Texas event brings needed health information, resources to the region

Texas A&M’s Healthy South Texas and Colonias Program join others to improve health in underserved communities
people presenting on stage at a community event

The new year comes with plans to improve one’s health and establish positive lifestyle habits, but it’s often difficult to find the information and resources needed to make these changes.

The Texas A&M University System’s Healthy South Texas and Texas A&M Colonias Program recently joined other health programs to present at the Your Health Matters! Wellness Conference at Laredo Independent School District. The event was designed to provide more outreach and bring valuable health-related education, including healthy nutrition and wellness resources, to communities in South Texas.

The event drew more than 200 people to the school district’s Marcus Nelson Conference Center.

Healthy South Texas is a collaboration of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M Health that focuses on preventing and reducing the impact of common diseases including diabetes in the 27 southernmost Texas counties, from Brazoria County to Cameron County. The Colonias program seeks to increase self-sufficiency and enhance the quality of life for colonias residents all along the Texas-Mexico border.

Increased community partnerships

The Your Health Matters! Wellness Conference began through a shared vision of bringing speakers with expertise on health, wellness and nutrition to the citizens of Webb County and the City of Laredo. This year’s event was offered in person to school district parents and others and was also broadcast via livestream.

Partnering with the Laredo Independent School District’s Parent and Family Engagement Department, attendees were offered health screenings and consultations from Healthy South Texas. Attendees also participated in a community resource fair and heard presentations from experts and advocates in health and wellness. Attendees were treated to a Mediterranean-diet-themed luncheon sponsored by PAD Specialists with recipes that came from AgriLife Extension’s Dinner Tonight – Mediterranean recipe booklet.

“The event was a success, and the people who attended said they learned a lot from the presenters and the materials we made available to them,” said Patricia Campos, parent and family engagement program coordinator for the Laredo ISD.

“Along with the presentations, health and wellness agencies and services from the community set up information booths,” she said. “And many people, including some of our own employees, took advantage of the health screenings and advice provided by Healthy South Texas. We were happy to collaborate with Healthy South Texas and the Colonias program on this event.”

Addressing the health needs of underserved populations

Joe Gutierrez, the Central Rio Grande regional director for Texas A&M Colonias Program, said the event and others like it help bridge the health gap in many South Texas communities, particularly rural and economically challenged communities.

“Our goal is to help improve the quality of life for South Texas residents, and we work with several partners to make this happen,” he said. “One of the ways is by providing educational outreach related to health and wellness. The more people in communities we can educate about health and how to combat chronic disease, the more people there will be to share and spread that vital information. It’s important to give back to the community.”

Gutierrez’s son, Jorge Gutierrez, PhD, a former Texas A&M graduate who works at LMC Physical Therapy in Laredo, was among the event speakers and presented on the importance of physical activity, especially strengthening the body’s core.

Rusty Hohlt, EdD, director of Healthy Texas for AgriLife Extension in Bryan-College Station, said it took the efforts of several partners working together to make this event successful.

“Events like the Your Health Matters! Wellness Conference demonstrate how important partnerships are in bringing healthy lifestyle programs and resources to communities,” she said.

Julie Tijerina, AgriLife Extension program specialist for Healthy South Texas in Laredo, said such partnerships allow for better programming, wider reach and improved service to the community.

“By working together on this first partnership with the school district and promoting and providing education on lifestyle and wellness changes, we were able to reach 238 parents and parent liaisons in-person and 272 via livestream viewership.”

Expert knowledge, science-based information and health screenings

During the conference, Jenna Anding, PhD, professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Bryan-College Station, told attendees how the foods they eat may impact their mental cognition, especially as they age.

“My session focused on different types of eating patterns that may be beneficial to our brain and overall health,” she said. “Session attendees learned about various types of beneficial diet plans and how they could incorporate them into their own eating patterns.”

The event also included the educational presentation “Stress Less, Mind Matters” by Debra Kellstedt, DrPH, assistant professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in Bryan-College Station. The presentation—one of the HealthTalk Express modules provided through AgriLife Extension’s Family and Community Health unit—addressed the topic of stress and its connection to chronic disease.

“Stress can have a serious impact on a person’s mental and physical outcomes,” Kellstedt said. “The purpose of this presentation was to explore how stress affects our mental and emotional health and offer some guidance on how to reduce that stress to improve overall wellness.”

As an addition to the event, Healthy South Texas also provided health screenings and consultations for attendees who wanted them.

“We made health screenings available to event attendees, including screening for A1C, cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index,” said Ceilhy Garcia, program coordinator with Texas A&M Health in McAllen. “In addition to the screenings we provided health advice, especially advice relating to diabetes management, as instances of diabetes are higher than normal in South Texas.”

Attendees also learned about the Medication Assistance Program provided through Healthy South Texas.

Using outcomes for improved health and lifestyle

Event attendee Pablo Macias, grandfather of a child at Laredo ISD, said he enjoyed the event presentations and information booths.

“I was especially interested in the information about diet and exercise,” he said. “I have a back injury and the information on how to exercise and strengthen my core was very helpful. I also hope to improve my lifestyle through diet and exercise, and this event gave me lots of information on how I could do that. I hope they have another one soon.”

Another attendee, Alma Garcia, said she benefitted from attending the wellness conference.

“The event was really good,” Garcia said. “I was able to get my blood pressure checked and do other health screenings.”

She said she also learned from the presentations.

“They were fantastic—and I got some really good information, especially about how important diet and exercise are,” she said. “Some people in my family have diabetes or might develop it, so I was especially interested in information on ways to manage that.”

Garcia said she felt events like these help the community and provide important information at a grass-roots level.

“I was able to get a lot of useful information that I could apply to my own life,” she said. “And this was really a great time to have an event like this, especially since a lot of people probably needed reminding about their promises to be healthier in the new year.”

This story originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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