Photo of Gloria Hernandez making a healthy fruit salad

Lilia Lopez, a class attendee, mixes up the fruit and yogurt parfaits.

Photo of women from Little Village chopping fruit

The group of women chop up fruit for their yogurt parfait breakfast.

In a small classroom in Little Village, Gloria Hernandez passed around recipes to a handful of women clad in hairnets and aprons. On this December morning, parfait de fruta y yogurt, or fruit and yogurt parfaits, were on the menu.

As the women peeled and chopped bananas, strawberries, apples and papayas, Gloria guided the culinary lesson. One of about 18 volunteers, Gloria works as a health promoter for Erie Neighborhood House’s Comprando Rico y Sano program.

Hosting charlas, or small educational classes, Gloria and her peers teach Chicago residents how to improve their health and the health of their families through cooking demonstrations, educational presentations and other family-friendly activities.

“I love it. I love how it makes people feel,” Gloria said of her teaching.

Hands-On Health Charlas

A partner of United Way of Metro Chicago, Erie Neighborhood House strives to serve entire families’ needs, from nurturing children’s development to empowering adults to build stronger communities. Through its nutrition program, Comprando Rico y Sano, volunteer health promoters address the foundation for families’ success – their physical health.

Gloria, a West Town resident, began volunteering as a health promoter with the program two years ago. Like some of her fellow volunteers, she hoped the program would help her develop healthy eating habits she could pass along to her family.

“The ones that join the group, each of them has a different story and different reason to be there. And once they start learning, that empowers them, and they want to go out to the community and share their stories,” Elva Serna, a community engagement specialist at Erie Neighborhood House, said of the health promoters. She manages the program, hosts charlas and trains Gloria and the other volunteers.

“[Health promoters] are not different from the community,” Elva added. We have different issues and we are struggling with different things. But we tell [residents] ‘If we’re working together, we’re not alone.’ And that can help them to change their eating habits.”

To educate their neighbors, the health promoters bring the charlas, which typically include a cooking and nutrition lesson, directly to groups of 10 to 100 community members. Sometimes, they host chats for groups of students at a school. On other occasions, they teach parents at a church or senior citizens at their residential home.

The health promoters create pop-up kitchens for the group to test out new recipes using ingredients they likely already have at home, like cauliflower ceviche, pepilocos and chickpea salad. Erie Neighborhood House provides all the necessary ingredients for the demos, as well as kitchen tools and portable appliances, like stovetops, blenders and toasters, to make each dish.

The health promoters sometimes take the lesson into neighborhood supermarkets, where they teach parents and families how to plan and find quick, healthy meals on a tight budget.

“We’re trying to empower them and give them the right information and options, so they can be more healthy,” Elva said. “We want them to learn and to create anchors for memories — like you have from your childhood — related to food.”