People demonstrate zumba, a dance-fitness program, at a health fair Saturday… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Education, health and community leaders, driven by high obesity rates, announced an agreement Saturday to open some Los Angeles school campuses after hours so that families would have a safe place to exercise.
The goal is to turn schools into community hubs for residents to participate in aerobics classes, walking clubs and other activities that promote health. The program, named Jugar after the Spanish word for "play," is starting with two pilot projects in the Boyle Heights and Pico Union neighborhoods.
"We are very park poor in Los Angeles County," said Suzanne Bogert, who directs the obesity prevention program for the county Department of Public Health. "We need to open up areas for people to recreate."
The nonprofit Alliance for a Better Community, which is leading the effort, held a health fair Saturday at Mendez Learning Center in Boyle Heights to raise awareness about the partnership. Families could get free blood pressure and HIV screening, watch a demonstration of a zumba exercise class and get information about eating more healthfully.
Avely Ramirez, 37, who lives in Boyle Heights, said there aren't many places in the neighborhood for her children to play — or for her to exercise. Ramirez said she wanted to lose weight and was interested in taking a zumba class at the school. "It's very good to have this open," she said in Spanish.
Mendez Learning Center student Alex Guevara helped hand out free vegetable plants during the health fair. Having the campus available on weekends will give him and his friends somewhere to go, he said.
"School seems safe, better than the streets," said Guevara, 17.
Mendez school leaders said they were open to the program because it could help their students and families become healthier and get the community more involved in the school.
"We don't want the families to see this as only a Monday-to-Friday place," said Alex Avila, one of the school's principals. "We want the community to feel welcome always."
Avila added that working with community groups helps ensure that the school stays clean while it is open after hours.
The Alliance for a Better Community, which received federal dollars for the program, worked with public health officials to choose locations that had poor health outcomes, such as high levels of diabetes or obesity, and a community desire for change.
The organization is working with the Los Angeles Unified School District to streamline policies on after-hours campus use and joint-use agreements. The group's executive director, Angelica Solis, said there is no "rhyme or reason" to which schools are locked Saturdays and Sundays.
Solis said she hopes to expand the program to other schools throughout the district in the near future.
"Community members want to be able to access these spaces," she said.