Current Environment:

Connecting Families with Health and Wellness Resources

Headquartered in Mission Hill, Sociedad Latina just celebrated its 50th birthday, making it Boston’s oldest Latino-focused youth-serving organization.

Using a grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health, Sociedad Latina has created and launched Padres Comprometidos (Committed Parents), a program aimed at helping Latino, Spanish-speaking, and immigrant families discover and explore health and wellness opportunities that focus on nutrition and fitness.

Parent engagement has been a cornerstone of Sociedad Latina’s approach throughout its half-century history, notes associate director Lydia Emmons. The group works with Boston middle-school students and, through those students, reaches entire families. Why middle school, rather than elementary-school-aged children? “We find that in the elementary years, there’s a very natural parent involvement,” Emmons says. Once they hit middle school, “it takes a bit more doing to retain that family involvement. And once they hit high school,” she laughs, “it takes a lot more doing.”

Clearly, this approach toward long-term engagement works — more than 60 percent of Sociedad Latina’s middle-school students stay with the program into high school.

Helping families adjust

Padres Comprometidos kicked off this spring with activities in East Boston. The clients, all recent immigrants, hailed from Central America, in particular El Salvador and Guatemala. Participants “have plenty of knowledge about eating healthy,” Emmons says, “but it doesn’t always translate to the northeast. Access to food, and our relationship with food, is very different here. There’s much more processed food, for example. The question becomes, how do you navigate what’s here in the city?”

Sociedad Latina has developed a myriad of ways to assist, keeping the focus on health and health equity. Early on, there was a family potluck dinner, with participants bringing traditional recipes. Here’s the twist: The program brought in a nutritionist who helped clients make such changes as reducing sodium and exploring leaner meat options — without compromising the character of the dishes.

The nutritionist also led tours of local grocery stores. Not only did this demystify the stores — a vital benefit for recent immigrants, many of whom are learning English — but more lessons were learned about healthy options and affordability.

Maria Elena, who recently moved from El Salvador to East Boston, first connected with Sociedad Latina through participating in a Zumba class. Through a translator, she says she has found the programs both fascinating and helpful. “I drink less fruit juice now,” she says, “because of all the sugar. Less juice, more water.” Using less salt in her cooking, fewer pre-packaged condiments, and more herbs are also useful tips, she adds. “I’m learning a lot. It’s been so good for all of us.”

The Collaboration for Community Health funds will allow Sociedad Latina to measure the success of the program by looking at changes in participants’ health behaviors and knowledge. Emmons says this sort of follow-up will prove invaluable in fine-tuning the program.

Plans for the future

As Padres Comprometidos gains traction, Sociedad Latina has created ambitious, yet feasible, next steps. “We’d like to reach out to other health and wellness business leaders in the community,” Emmons says, “to sort of map out what it would look like for Mission Hill to be a healthy community supporting families.” That means demystifying health spaces, creating an infrastructure with open access to all those resources, and expanding programs like Padres Comprometidos.

To Elena, Sociedad Latina has been a key part of her welcome to Boston, where the high price of fruits and vegetables is about the only downside. What started with a Zumba class has turned into something far greater. That’s music to Emmons’ ears. “We’re sharing meals, we’re building community ties,” she says. “It’s all leading to broader discussions about what health means.”