When panel moderator Ida Acuña Garza, executive director of the South Texas Literacy Coalition, asked the audience at Librarians and Educators Day March 22 at the 2013 Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) how many knew someone with diabetes, all the hands in the room flew up.
Ways to address the high rates of the disease and obesity and to promote healthier lifestyles by residents in the region were the focus of a Congressional Roundtable on Health Literacy in the Hispanic Community held on the fifth day of the annual weeklong event at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"Diabetes is a serious, serious disease affecting our whole nation," said Roundtable presenter Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15), who described some of the programs and federal funding he has supported to combat the disease and the promising diabetes research being conducted nationwide. "We must work just as hard to educate people about this disease. We must work with and train young children so they can learn how to live healthier lives."
Initiated in 2006 by UT Pan American, FESTIBA promotes interest and appreciation for reading and early literacy, celebrates the arts and humanities, and broadens cultural awareness within the South Texas community. This year's theme for the weeklong event that runs through March 24 is "Literacy: Inspiring Healthy Minds and Healthy Bodies."
Other roundtable participants were Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, UTPA provost and vice president for Academic Affairs; Stephen Leach, manager, Community Relations, Nestle USA; Brenda Villa, captain of the Gold Medal winning water polo squad at the 2012 Olympic Games; and Guadalupe Garcia McCall, award-winning author and teacher. Topics discussed ranged from what are the best resources available to educators for use with their students to corporations' responsibilities toward promoting healthy lifestyles to the benefits of bilingual education and materials.
Leach, a frequent visitor to the Valley who formerly worked for Reading is Fundamental, said his interest in health literacy goes beyond his corporate role. His mother has diabetes and his father died from the disease while he was in high school. He said most people know Nestle by its chocolate products but the company, which employs 300,000 globally, offers many other products ranging from water to baby food.
He described the company's latest efforts to provide health awareness and good nutritional food options, including packaging that has a Nestle Nutritional Compass giving information on the best nutrition use of the product. Nestle also sponsors a program with the National Education Association called Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives that provides a course for teachers to help educate their students on wellness and nutrition. He said there is a need for corporations to invest back into their communities, especially in underserved communities.
"Major corporations have a very, very important role when it comes to education, when it comes to bringing awareness about the importance of health issues," Leach said. "We are in a global economy ... and we'll need the next generation of leaders, sales teams and marketers. We have a responsibility to that next generation."
McCall, who taught middle school for 25 years and authored two successful young adult books, said she feels educators can make a huge impact on the community's health because education is key to success in everything.
"I think it is our job to address (living a healthy lifestyle) but we need to do it in more than just bringing a book to class. We need to go beyond the classroom ... we need to create environments for healthier living," McCall said.
She suggested creating partnerships with families, perhaps starting a vegetable garden and involving the family in researching the best plants, for example.
Rodríguez said UT Pan American has not only played a key leadership role in the economic well being and the health of the people in the Rio Grande Valley but also nationwide. He presented a long list of UTPA programs that are recognized nationally and have a significant impact on health and health literacy in the Valley, including those in Medical Spanish, nursing, rehabilitation counseling, and physician assistant studies. He also described new initiatives being undertaken by the University to address diabetes and medical education.
"Health and public health issues are key issues in the Valley that we need to address in a consistent, equitable and systemic manner. Much work has been done, much progress has been made, yet so much more needs to be done," he said.
Roberta Fredenburg, reading coordinator for Accelerated Reader and director of Library Services for IDEA Public Schools, said she appreciated the Roundtable discussions about having educators and parents change their mindsets to ensure their children are eating healthy foods and Nestle's commitment to providing healthy snacks to the Boys and Girls Club.
"I think a well-rounded child in education is more than just being book smart, it's also knowing how to keep yourself happy, how to keep yourself safe throughout your life," Fredenburg said. "So making sure that we're teaching kids responsibility, not only in their actions, but in their choices and making sure that they're healthy, is going to definitely impact the longevity of our population."
Fredenburg also said she appreciated UT Pan American for hosting the event.
"It really shows that UTPA is committed to education by ensuring that we as educators continue within our professional development and continue talking about the most important aspects of education: ensuring that our kids in the Rio Grande Valley are getting the best that we can provide for them," she said.
In her lunchtime keynote address, McCall said that in addition to ensuring students are physically healthy, educators and families must continue to make sure children are emotionally healthy.
McCall also shared statistics on the number of Hispanic students who graduate high school and earn college degrees. She said about 50 percent of Hispanic students who graduate from high school attend college but only 2.5 percent of those students who graduated high school actually earn a bachelor's degree.
"Higher education and personal success must become a certainty, a given in the hearts of our children," she said. "It is our time to gather our courage, spread our wings and fly with confidence. We must use the power of words to enlighten our young people, to strengthen their inner core and help them spread their wings so that it might elevate our community and help us take our place in the world."
McCall's speech was followed by a presentation from Lebby Salinas, founder of Fooducation Inc. and certified health coach, who talked about how she transformed her health from nearly dying from various illnesses to thriving after researching how food affects health.
Educators were also treated to a cooking demonstration by Chef Jesse Castellon, winner of the 2012 RGV Iron Chef contest, who showed the crowd how to make healthy meals from fresh foods.
FESTIBA continued Friday evening with its Community Festival at Jardín Del Arte at the Edinburg City Hall Complex, which included authors signing books, puppet shows and plays for children, art exhibits, and other activities.
UTPA's educational partner to present FESTIBA is Region One ESC GEAR UP. The 2013 FESTIBA sponsors include the City of Edinburg, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, The Raul Tijerina Jr. Foundation, Reading is Fundamental, South Texas Literacy Coalition, Dustin Sekula Memorial Library, Texas Book Festival, The University of Texas-Pan American Library, International Museum of Art and Science, Tocker Foundation, and the Scholastic Classroom and Community Group.
The festival continues Saturday, March 23 with a mariachi competition and concert at the UTPA Fieldhouse that will feature more than 600 high school and middle school students vying for trophies. UTPA's award-winning Mariachi Aztlán and world-famous Mariachi Sol de México de José Hernández are also expected to perform.
For more information, visit www.utpa.edu/festiba.