By Azucena Hilario and Valentina Guevara-Hernandez

More than 1,000 community members gathered at the Wellness Center at the Historic General Hospital March 23 to celebrate its fifth anniversary serving the Boyle Heights community. The center opened its doors in 2014 to offer no-cost health and wellness referral and support services to the community and patients of LAC+USC Medical Center.

Families, kids, teens and seniors came together to celebrate this milestone. The group La Sonora Dinamita played Cumbia music for the large crowd. Volunteers served a healthy meal and set up activities for kids. More than 30 different organizations participated, and many provided resource tables for the community.  

“We are excited to acknowledge and celebrate five years of increased community wellness through The Wellness Center!” said Rosa Soto, executive director of the LAC+USC Medical Center Foundation, which operates The Wellness Center. “In our five-year history, we have provided life-changing resources to 25,000 community members who have participated in support groups, cooking workshops, exercise classes and signed-up for health insurance. Truly – the work of The Wellness Center is changing lives for the better – for kids, youth, women and families – and for many of them, it has become their ‘wellness home.’”

Nineteen-year-old Cassandra Castillo, a Boyle Heights resident who attends East Los Angeles Community College, has participated in the WELA YMCA Youth Institute and received services from the East LA Women’s Center, both housed at The Wellness Center. She says it’s important to her to have nearby places to go for these services. “They help us become more aware of issues happening in our community, and they help youth take action,” said Castillo.

Seeds of Hope, one of the organizations participating in the celebration, provides cooking and nutrition classes and gardening workshops for the community. Erica Nieves, 30, assistant project coordinator, said, “Our program is beneficial to the participants here at The Wellness Center because we teach how to eat a little bit better using foods that we already are accustomed to–and introducing new foods as well–and learning how to cook those in a healthier way.”

The Seeds of Hope gardening program gives an opportunity for people to garden at the center if they lack space at home and provides a form of therapy for some. Vegetables grown from the program are distributed to participants and other community members.

Diego Rodrigues, 37, is the chief operating officer for Alma Family Services and a mental health services provider at The Wellness Center. Alma Family Services provides community members with counseling, psychotherapy, case management and supportive services. It also helps connect people with other services that may be beneficial. Rodrigues says he and his team are currently working on outreach programs to raise community awareness of mental health and the therapy services available at The Wellness Center.

Through a new project, Innovations 2, Rodrigues said, “We’re bringing information to the community so they don’t only have to come here to get it. We’re going into churches, schools, day care centers, community spaces and not only sharing information, but also listening to them and learning from the community how we can provide them with support.”

Juana Mena, 48, a volunteer with the Building Healthy Communities organization said she not only works to inform the community about the opportunities available at The Wellness Center, but uses them herself.  

“Here I have services available to me that I would have to pay for somewhere else,” said Mena. “I don’t have that kind of money.”

The County of Los Angeles, Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, The California Endowment, L.A. Care Health Plan and public and private funders support The Wellness Center. [Disclosure: The California Endowment also supports Boyle Heights Beat.]For a monthly calendar of exercise and workshop activities, visit:  www.thewellnesscenterla.org.

Photos by Oscar Vargas.

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