Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Social Work

Mind, Body, Spirit

UTSA social work students adopt a holistic approach to educate a community on finding balance to maintain health


Assistant Professor Emmett Gill watches his social work students as they engage with local residents at the Madonna Neighborhood Center.

Imagine a gymnast walking on the balance beam during a national competition. She’s delicately taking the right steps with the perfect rhythmic balance without falling from the beam. In order to stay focused, she uses her body, her mind, her emotions and her spirit to successfully stay balanced and ultimately complete her routine.

Maintaining optimal health is like walking on a balance beam. You must feed your mind, your body and your spirit to achieve the proper balance in life. A group of UTSA master of social work students—in conjunction with the Madonna Neighborhood Center in the Edgewood Independent School District on San Antonio’s west side—is working hard to help children and adults adopt a healthy lifestyle and find their balance in life.

In fall 2014, UTSA social work students teamed with community agencies for a semester-long health-based public awareness and advocacy effort designed to promote healthier lifestyles for Edgewood children. This student group, Transform Your Health SA, tackled the rising obesity rates cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 39 percent of Latino children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, compared to almost 32 percent of all U.S. children. Emmett Gill’s Advanced Communities Class is doing something about it. It started with raising money through UTSA’s crowdfunding website, Launch UTSA. During the fall 2014, Transform Your Health SA raised more than $1,500 to provide sports and playground equipment for the Madonna Neighborhood Center.

Gill and his class used mapping techniques to determine that Edgewood ISD has a significantly higher number of children at an unhealthy weight than other school districts. According to a study conducted in 2009 by public health consultant Fernando A. Guerra, 42 percent of students at Edgewood ISD are obese or overweight.

For the spring 2015 semester, Transform Your Health SA met families in Edgewood during weekly meetings to listen to their concerns and their ideas on improving their community. One of the residents, Martha Castilla, who is also the program director at the Madonna Center with 15 years of experience working in the Edgewood district, states that the social work students have been a very valuable asset because the center suffers from not having enough volunteers. “When you all come here, it’s like leveraging resources,” she says.

Students show parents in the Edgewood ISD who attend a weekly meeting how they can access services to improve their children's nutrition and activity levels.

Castilla supports the holistic approach to preventing obesity and breaking the cycle. “You must feed your mind, your body and your spirit,” she explains. “Once you build trust and equity with your members, then you can get to the root of the problem.”

The UTSA students learn the residents are concerned about how difficult it is to afford healthier meal options. The residents say it’s hard to cook because there is not enough time, especially when parents have to work. One resident states that it’s easier to go to a fast food restaurant. As kids get used to eating processed and fast foods, it’s hard to break the cycle because when they are introduced to healthy meals, they don’t like the taste.

The Transform Your Health SA students hope to break the cycle of poor nutrition and inactivity. The group has organized activities and events through its Facebook page to highlight healthy eating habits and the benefits of exercise. “Some people don’t have the education to make healthier eating choices,” says UTSA social work graduate student Roylee Soliz.

The group knows that a broad call to action is necessary. “There is a sense of community involvement with the stores we go to,” says Eva Rodriguez, social work student, “The people are open and friendly and they want to help the residents in their community.” The group has organized activities and events through its Facebook page to highlight healthy eating habits and the benefits of exercise.

To engage with the community, the students host run-walk events to increase exercise and fitness options. According to Gill, one man who had been walking along the trail felt uplifted because he lost nearly 200 pounds.

“The students added a little spark to the Madonna Center,” Gill says. “They are building partnerships with other organizations who are willing to help, talking with the baseball coaches and building relationships.”

Gill further talks about the importance of sustained effort: “Changing people’s thoughts and efforts takes time, but one of the greatest outcomes we have achieved thus far is that we’re calling the Edgewood community members by their first name. At the end of the day, any way you mention it, that goes a long way.”