Katia Vaisberg is well aware that comprehensively addressing America’s obesity epidemic will require large-scale social and systemic change: “How can we expect mothers to allow their children to run around and play outside if there are no parks, and if there were reports of gang violence one street down from their house last week?” the Schweitzer Fellow asks. “How can we urge families to stop eating fast food when their neighborhood has a 10-to-1 ratio of fast food restaurants to grocery stores, and when parents are working two jobs just to make rent payments on their apartment?”
Those are tough (and rhetorical) questions. But Vaisberg—a student at the University of California, Los Angeles Geffen School of Medicine—is doing her part to find answers. As a Schweitzer Fellow, she has partnered with the Venice Family Clinic to expand their KP KIDS (Kaiser Permanente Kids In Dynamic Shape) programming in ways that take a holistic, family-centered, and social-determinants-of-health-conscious approach to addressing obesity.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
Last year, I heard about an incredible opportunity to do what I’ve been passionate about since high school: a fellowship that would enable me to volunteer in the community while supporting and mentoring me through a project of my choice. As I sat in the informational session put on by last year’s Schweitzer Fellows, my ears perked up when I heard the words “children,” “prevention,” “obesity,” and “Venice Family Clinic”; it was like all my past experiences were being listed off one after the other.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, I had volunteered at Venice Family Clinic (VFC) for over two years. The staff there showed me a compassionate and inspired side of medicine, in which everyone worked toward improving the healthcare of an underserved, often uninsured patient population that had nowhere else to turn. They cemented my desire to pursue a career in medicine.
After graduating, I worked with the Westside Family YMCA as a physical education teacher, a swim instructor, and an after-school program instructor; I designed a physical fitness class as well. I saw the inspiration that physical fitness could bring to a group of kids – the improved self-esteem, nutritional knowledge, and, of course, health benefits. So you can imagine, with these past experiences, how excited I was to hear of KP KIDS.
KP KIDS (Kaiser Permanente Kids In Dynamic Shape) is a program that was started by Kaiser, and then handed off to many of the sites where it was developed, one of which was VFC. Building on a previous Schweitzer Fellowship project [by Jeffrey Delacruz and Brian Raffetto, both UCLA medical students], I decided this was the perfect opportunity to combine my previous experiences. I wanted to help structure the outdoor fitness portion of the program into an integrative program where the kids could bring the healthy lifestyle learning they got from the VFC health educators outdoors for some exercise.
The health educators needed a consistent volunteer to run the fitness portion of the course so that they could have time to educate the parents in nutrition and health issues, and so the program could expand to more sites. I was excited to help out in an obesity prevention project, working with the very same organization that had originally sparked my passion for prevention, primary care, and work with the underserved.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
Word of mouth is a powerful tool. I’m hoping the families will take what they learned from the KP KIDS classes—like eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, baking rather than frying, and limiting screen time to 1 hour—and spread the word to their communities. Apart from these concrete things, though, which I know realistically might be forgotten after the end of the 6-week program, it’s the awareness of the issues that I hope will stick.
The program does an incredible job incorporating the whole family in the process of living a healthier lifestyle, encouraging both kids and parents to exercise together, go shopping for healthier foods together, and discuss the issue of obesity and diabetes as a family. I’m hoping this holistic family-centric approach will stick with the families that graduate from the program, encouraging them to continue working together towards healthier lifestyles.
The kids have a lot of fun in the program learning new skills and discovering new abilities within themselves through exercise—so a third impact I am hoping to make is the building of self-esteem. We provide the kids and their families with a tool box for healthier living, and by putting these tools into their hands, I hope they will feel empowered to continue with what they’ve learned on their own, knowing that they have what it takes to make a difference in their futures.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Obesity and all the health issues that go along with it—diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, disability—plus the closely-tied issue of access to health care, and the health disparities in the U.S. that are based on socio-economic divisions.
While addressing these issues is the million-dollar question, I think prevention is key. That’s why children are such an important patient population: there is still room to drastically change their path away from soda, fast food, and obesity and towards a healthier lifestyle.
Having talked to people regarding the issue of obesity and prevention, it has become blatantly obvious to me that while prevention through education is important, it can make little headway without the support of policy change. How can we expect mothers to allow their children to run around and play outside if there are no parks and if there were reports of gang violence one street down from their house last week? How can we urge families to stop eating fast food when their neighborhood has a 10-to-1 ratio of fast food restaurants to grocery stores, and when parents are working two jobs just to make rent payments on their apartment?
Basically, the obesity and diabetes epidemic requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the root of the issue – disparities in everything from access to healthy food and healthy spaces to education and access to primary health care.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
I’ve been extremely surprised at how eager the families and kids I work with are to learn. They participate and are excited about the new vegetables they try and the new exercises they learn. I guess I was expecting more cynicism and resistance; instead, there is so much energy around learning what is best for the family’s wellbeing and how changes can be made.
The kids are excited to learn new skills, like soccer or jump-roping. We do a jump rope tournament as one of the outdoor activities, and I’ll have many of the kids that came into the program not knowing how to jump rope come up to me and tell me they’ve been practicing at home and they’re good now! They don’t give up just because they can’t do something—instead, they make an increased effort to learn and persevere. It’s been a very pleasant surprise!
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
It means being part of a larger community of Fellows who are striving toward the same goals in their professional endeavors—to address the inequalities in healthcare today. The support and mentorship that the Schweitzer Fellowship has offered me has been incredible, and I would like to someday be a mentor to someone in my shoes in the future.
Being a Fellow for Life will serve as a constant reminder of the great things one can accomplish in his or her community if they wish to make a difference. When I feel jaded in the future—and such moments are sure to occur for everyone—I will need only look back on my project and read about the projects of current Fellows to remind me of why I went into medicine in the first place.
Katia Vaisberg is a Schweitzer Fellow in Los Angeles, CA. Click here to read more about the Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Vaisberg it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. The work of Fellows like Vaisberg is supported entirely through donations from people like you: to make a tax-deductible gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Vaisberg’s efforts to address childhood obesity, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.