Rancho Cucamonga Involves Youth to Improve Community Health

The City of Rancho Cucamonga won the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government in the 2014 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.helenputnam.org.

Youth in the City of Rancho Cucamonga (pop. 177,000), located in western San Bernardino County, historically had limited opportunities to engage in community conversations about local policy issues such as health and wellness. Although the city implemented many policies and programs that affected its young residents, their input was neither requested nor sought. Furthermore, the community frequently perceived youth as a problem that needed fixing.

Young residents had few chances to engage with city officials and share their concerns beyond youth clubs and recreational activities. In Rancho Cucamonga, youth under 18 comprise over a quarter of the total population, and young people ages 10 to 19 account for 16 percent. Emerging health trends such as obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity constituted serious community concerns and affected youth as well. If Rancho Cucamonga was to effectively improve the health and wellness of its residents, it would need to actively engage young people in community health issues as well as the related local governmental decision- and policy-making processes.

Health Initiative Is Catalyst for Youth Engagement

When the city launched Healthy RC, an initiative to improve health equity and community wellness, the need to meaningfully involve its young residents in the process became apparent. Healthy RC is a collaborative effort with over 75 stakeholders — including elected officials, city staff, county Department of Public Health, hospitals, schools, nonprofits and community-based organizations, faith-based groups, businesses, local universities, residents and youth — working together to improve health and wellness through policies, programs and partnerships.

The Healthy RC initiative, which began in 2008, served as a catalyst in developing the Healthy RC Youth Leaders program, designed to engage youth as leaders and partners who inform health-related decisions and policies and play an active role in implementing and sustaining them.

The Healthy RC Youth Leaders program provides leadership training and empowerment to promote health policies. It targets young people of middle-school and high-school age. Healthy RC Youth Leaders work in partnership with local government leaders and officials, community partners and resident groups to voice health concerns and issues and identify and implement long-term, policy-driven solutions. Students meet twice a month and participate in workshops and training to enhance leadership and communication skills, deepen their understanding of public policy and local governmental processes and build their capacity to improve the health and wellness of Rancho Cucamonga residents.

Youth Leaders Seize Opportunities

Through the Healthy RC Youth Leaders program, youth have helped to inform and shape policies, such as the nutrition and beverage standards and complete streets policies passed by the city council that improve healthy eating and active living. Young residents not only advocated for the passage of these policies, but also were actively involved in conducting focus groups and comprehensive surveys related to the measures. They assisted in developing and crafting policy language that the city and city council later adopted. As a direct result of the young leaders’ involvement, the city’s complete streets policy was recognized as the 10th best in the nation in 2012.

“The Healthy RC Youth Leader program is an extraordinary initiative that engages youth in a meaningful way. The youths in this program work alongside city staff and elected officials to truly shape the community, making it healthier for this generation and generations to come,” says Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Dennis Michael. “Watching our youth speak at a city council meeting in support of a policy that they helped write is true engagement, and nothing is more impactful. That’s what this program is all about.”

Young people have been instrumental in identifying opportunities in areas of the city that have the fewest resources and present the greatest risks related to health. They conducted photo projects and park assessments, engaged local residents and secured grant funds to improve health for residents in this area. Maelin Aquino served as the 2014 co-chair of the Healthy RC Youth Leaders. She says, “The Healthy RC Youth Leaders work on a range of health-related concerns, from healthy eating and active living to mental health and substance abuse. In 2013, our group wrote a successful competitive grant application. The best part was that we were able to use the grant to educate younger kids about the dangers of smoking. It was amazing to see our ideas in action!”

As a result of these efforts, the Healthy RC Youth Leaders program has earned recognition as a best practice in the region and the nation. Youth leaders have shared their outcomes with local media outlets and have been invited to present at statewide conferences. Their presentation at the 2013 national Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in Long Beach covered strategies to engage youth in using geographic information system technology to conduct neighborhood assessments that are part of Rancho Cucamonga’s efforts to improve community health.

Making a Difference

The Healthy RC Youth Leaders appreciate the opportunity to actively participate in the local governmental process. By learning how to navigate the policy process, conduct open dialogue with local decision-makers, apply for grant funding and have a voice in policy decisions, youth recognize that their participation has made a measurable, significant impact on the health of Rancho Cucamonga residents.

Healthy RC Youth Leader Natalia Reynoso says, “I did volunteer work for years in high school, but this is the one group where I felt I could truly make a difference in my city and could actually work hands-on. I really love that about the group.”

The program demonstrates how local youth and city government can work together to improve health and wellness. More importantly, it provides youth with an opportunity to work collaboratively with their city, address community-specific concerns and increase civic engagement.

Contact: Mike Parmer, management analyst, City Manager’s Office, City of Rancho Cucamonga; phone: (909) 477-2700, ext. 2046; email: Michael.Parmer@cityofrc.us.

Photo credits: Courtesy of City of Rancho Cucamonga and League of California Cities

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Western City
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Western City