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Hispanic Heritage Month Local Hero Karemi Alvarez Champions Health

Hispanic Heritage Month 2015 Honoree

What They Wanted Most: Free, Fresh Water

Photo credit: Marielena Castellanos

Karemi Alvarez, 2015 Hispanic Heritage Month Local Hero Honoree, sitting in her home, August 2015.

Students are lining up at Sweetwater High School’s first water station.

It marks a step forward for National City, the most obese city in San Diego County, and a win for those battling to better the health of underserved communities of color.

The idea came from the students themselves, but the effort was spearheaded by Karemi Alvarez of UC San Diego’s Center for Community Health. In 2013 the center launched an initiative to help National City make healthier eating and drinking choices.

“What the students wanted the most was to have access to free, fresh water,” she recalled.

Alvarez said students weren’t able to drink water at the school. They complained it tasted bad or that the fountains were uncomfortable to drink from.

Jump to video: Karemi talks faith-based health movements

“When students are not well nourished, they don’t perform well. It’s the same when they aren’t hydrated, their brain can’t work as well."

Photo credit: Karemi Alvarez

Karemi Alvarez, National City Mayor Ron Morrison, Sweetwater High School Principal Maribel Gavin stand in front of a water station at Sweetwater High School, April, 2014.

At first, National City businesses committed to six stations. But the school district was working out the logistics — so Alvarez had to wait. It took about one year for the school district to sort out plans for the stations they committed to.

By the time the school district was ready to move forward, Alvarez was already assigned to new projects with new deadlines. The funding from her department for the water station dried up, and her students had graduated and gone on to college. But that didn't stop her.

“I thought if it doesn’t happen it won’t be because of us, not because we didn’t try. I just can’t leave this. We worked so hard and it is important to make a difference.”

Alvarez went back to start her efforts all over. Unfortunately by that time, the initial sponsors donated to other projects. She was only able to get funding for one water station from the National City Mile of Cars. It's the one students still line up to use.

On Migration And Health

Alvarez said a lot of her motivation stems from her childhood.

At the age of five, she was fighting for her life after being diagnosed with a kidney disease. “I didn’t know what was going on or what was happening with my body,” she recalls.

Photo credit: Karemi Alvarez

Karemi Alvarez standing at a podium in front of a room about public health issues.

She spent nine days sedated in intensive care and three months in a hospital in Mexico. She was stressed and afraid, sharing a small room with two other patients who died beside her.

In spite of her doctors' expectations, she survived.

Beyond the hospital, Alvarez's childhood was impacted by Mexico’s troubled economy.

“The devaluation of the peso caused my parents to constantly move to different cities to search for work for a better life for my brothers and for me.”

In 1993, her parents decided to move to the U.S. She said it was difficult to leave friends and family; she didn’t feel a sense of stability growing up. It also brought cultural challenges, like learning a new language.

“At times it was overwhelming. Those experiences helped me identify with the struggles immigrants go through in the U.S. Having gone through these financial and health challenges, I identify with those struggles of not just immigrants, but others struggling in low income communities.”

Expanding Her Reach

Alvarez is now working with five county health departments in Southern California. She's helping them give low-income communities access to water, exercise and healthy food.

Photo credit: Karemi Alvarez

Karemi Alvarez sitting with representatives from public health departments in a conference room.

Alvarez proudly shares that one of them, in Inyo County, just added their own water station in May, which includes a fountain for dogs.

She’s also working with 22 church congregations across San Diego County to get parishioners to invest in their health. So far, they’ve started a youth health ministry, walking clubs, community gardens, and church radio programs on faith and health.

Alvarez's voice is full of excitement as she speaks of her projects and their future. She said in the back of her mind she can hear her parents telling her to keep going, to keep at it.

“I love ... feeling that I can make a difference, even if it doesn’t happen right a way, even if it’s just getting a young person motivated. And if someone can see they have the same opportunities to have a healthy life, that makes it worth it.”

Local Heroes Hispanic Heritage Month Honoree Karemi Alvarez

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