Words by Ellie Lapp.
As the Communications and Responsible Tourism intern with Fundación En Vía, I spend most of my time answering emails, scheduling tours, forwarding requests, and helping Mica – the Responsible Tourism Manager – with the many day-to-day details that go into making En Vía’s tours happen. Beyond those tasks, I also get to work on special projects. Lately I’ve been compiling a “biography” of En Vía, learning about how En Vía started operating in each community and how its different programs grew. Essentially, I am collecting stories about how En Vía came to be what it is today.
En Vía’s core programs center around Microfinance, Responsible Tourism, and Education. In the several years that En Vía has worked in communities of the Tlacolula valley, additional community-driven initiatives have sprung thanks to several fruitful collaborations. In this post I want to tell you about one of those community initiatives in particular: En Vía’s health and nutrition program.
Diabetes as the main health concern
It started with a few dedicated nursing volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a health survey in all of the communities in which En Vía works. When the women were asked about their greatest health concerns, the results clearly pointed to Diabetes. This did not come as a big surprise, as the World Health Organization lists Diabetes as the leading cause of death for women in Mexico, emphasizing that the highest rates of disease are often found in the most marginalized areas of the country with a high indigenous population. Oaxaca ranks 3rd in the country for high rates of Diabetes, with over 150,000 people living with the disease. Furthermore, the region in which we work, the Valles Centrales of Oaxaca, is one of the regions with the most concentrated levels of Diabetes in the state and country.
Working off of the results of this survey, and with this background knowledge in mind, two students from Bard College in New York designed a comprehensive health program that they would implement through En Vía. With a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace for $10,000 they started up a health initiative in two En Vía communities that showed the most interest and need: San Sebastian Abasolo and San Miguel del Valle.
Workshops and healthy cooking classes
The students designed workshops about Diabetes, which included information about prevention, symptoms, causes, healthy eating habits, and more. They also held healthy cooking classes, and created a recipe book that was modified to suit what was available to the women as well as their tastes. Perhaps the most popular part of the program was the Zumba classes. The grant supported two local Zumba instructors to visit the communities twice per week, and the classes proved to be an absolute hit.
We are so grateful to the many volunteers who have chipped in with their various skills since this program started—including nutritionists, nurses, Zumba instructors, and college students. For example, a team of two nutritionists chose to do their servicio social (a mandatory term of social service for Mexican college students) with En Vía this summer. They held interviews with various women and designed personalized nutrition plans for them. Many of these women report feeling healthier and even losing weight as a result of these plans!
Passing on the baton
Now we are nearing the end of the grant, and En Via has passed the baton over to the communities. The good news is—we’re really not needed anymore! A young woman in San Miguel has been training to be a Zumba teacher so she can take over classes there. Women are on track with their nutrition plans and have all they need to continue them, and can also share their newfound knowledge with others in their community. The communities also have more information to expand their own public health campaigns. In essence, they know what their needs are, and with the support of this program have developed the tools necessary to address them themselves.
This initiative has been highly successful, and we are so grateful to have had the opportunity to run it. The women have been delighted with the experience, particularly with Zumba, and have improved it themselves: chipping in to buy a set of scales, weights, and pushing themselves to maximize this opportunity for exercise. We recognize the importance to encourage the direct participation of the communities in the programs that interest and benefit them, so that they are even more sustainable. As we continue to be open to new initiatives, we now use the nutrition program as a model by asking the communities about their needs, providing specific services tailored to those needs, and constructing the programs in a way that makes them self-sustainable.
We also want to invest in programs that help us better understand the women with whom we work. In this case, knowing about their health concerns, what they eat every day, and the prevalence of diseases like Diabetes in their communities helps us know them better. It also helps us understand how their business life is not separate from other issues, like family and health concerns. This enables us to better suit their needs and effectively fulfill our vision to strive for financial inclusion and women’s empowerment through microfinance.