Photo of Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center Exterior

In an old, brick-walled gym flooded with morning sunlight, dozens of women sporting colorful workout clothes were breaking a sweat in Miguel Murillo’s Latin dance class.

Following his lead, the women danced the Salsa, Mambo and Cha-Cha, mixed with Zumba and other hip-hop moves, as drum beats pulsed through the speaker system.

Hosted by the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center in Chicago Heights, the women, ranging in age from early-20s to 60s, meet three days a week to exercise to improve their health, address potential or existing health conditions, and promote healthy lifestyles for their families.

For more than 100 years, the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, has worked to strengthen family ties and answer community needs, including creating an environment for children and families to learn and succeed.

In past years, families in the area began asking for opportunities to get healthy. In response, one year ago, the center began offering the dance class for women   who were eager to exercise and relieve stress. It’s been spicing up the lives of residents ever since.

Preventing, responding to health conditions

In a city where nearly 30 percent of residents are obese, many communities of color and those in poverty fare the worst. Children in Chicago have higher overweight and obesity prevalence rates than children across the U.S. in the same age groups. In fact, nearly 30 percent of Chicago 6th graders are obese, and the obesity rates in these children were highest among black and Hispanic communities.

Leadership at the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center hopes to change that narrative by expanding the opportunities available to its residents in Chicago Heights, a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, and surrounding communities. They recognize that to promote healthy lifestyles for children, they must promote healthy lifestyles for the entire family.

“In low income areas, we find there’s high obesity rates. We struggle with eating healthy and exercising. [The dance class] is a way to offer an opportunity to those in the community,” said Mark Goesel, program director for the community center.

In its short tenure, the class has already made a lasting difference in the lives of women like Maria Lopez*, a local Latina woman who reported weight issues and a poor diet.

Last year, Maria was told by her doctor that she was at risk of acquiring Type II Diabetes. When she received that warning, she knew she had to make a change.

Maria, who regularly brought her kids to the Jones Center’s youth programs, expressed an interest in developing a healthier lifestyle to the center’s Assistant Director Juana Morales. In turn, Juana connected Maria to the center’s new Latin Dance class.

Photo of residents participating in a Latin Dance Class

Maria discovered she really enjoyed the workouts, as well as the camaraderie of being with other women from the community. Since it didn’t feel like exercise, Maria hardly missed a class.

In addition to being overweight, she admitted that her diet was low in fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins, so she supplemented her new workouts with nutrition classes offered at the Jones Center through the University of Illinois Extension programs. There, she learned the basics of clean eating and substituting snack foods and soda with fruits and vegetables.

After eight months of participating in the Latin dance and nutrition classes, Maria lost 36 pounds and reported that her energy level was much higher. At her next doctor’s visit, her fasting blood sugar finally fell in the normal range.

Open to all

Unlike a pricey gym membership, the Jones Center classes, held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays, are free to the public. For many parents, that is a welcome relief.

The women are also encouraged to bring their infants and toddlers along if they cannot afford a babysitter, further lessening their financial burden and removing barriers to participating.

“Money doesn’t have to stop you from being healthy,” said Cecilia Sotelo, who drives 30 minutes from her home in Harvey to participate in the class. She lets others in her community know about the program, too.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of friends and passing along the information. If they want, they can be healthy and it’s free,” Cecilia said.

Promoting family health

In addition to giving their parents an opportunity to work out, the children’s attendance at the class also exposes them to healthy lifestyles. By watching their mothers routinely prioritize and engage in fun, energetic exercise, the center hopes the children will adapt their own positive exercise habits.

“They bring their kids and the little ones are seeing their parents doing exercise and it encourages them to follow their steps,” Juana said. “We have mothers and daughters who are coming together to exercise, too.”

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we are committed to improving the lives of children and families through robust health initiatives lead by community partners who prioritize healthy lifestyles for the entire family, like the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center.

Because when families are healthier, communities, like Chicago Heights, can thrive.

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