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Water is life! Providing Access and Education to San Pablo Students.

The challenge that YES teens took on was an urgent one. San Pablo, CA, a small city of approximately 30,000 residents, has the highest rate of childhood obesity (52%) in all of Contra Costa County. One of the causes of this alarmingly high number is that 73% of teens are estimated to consume one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day. Sugary drinks add excess calories and lead to health problems later in life such as type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease, and more.

To tackle this challenge, we decided to start with high school age teens who live in the greater Richmond/San Pablo area. YES recruited 8 teens from our Camp-to-Community (C2C) youth leadership program and started meeting weekly, holding facilitated conversations and lessons/activities about the causes and effects of childhood obesity. In particular, we focused on Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) consumption, Type 2 diabetes, and the marketing tactics of sugary drink companies.

The purpose of these meetings was for our teens to better understand the diabetes epidemic, and to figure out the best way to teach the importance of making lifestyle choices that will prevent the onset of diet-related diseases and conditions. After a few months of meetings, our teens were ready to pass their knowledge on to their peers.

To do so, YES partnered with Helms Middle School in San Pablo, and coordinated with Helms Community School Coordinator Megan White, an employee of Bay Area Community Resources, to create a plan for how and when the C2C teens would come in and present their lessons. The teens designed an application and set of interview questions, and went about selecting a group of Helms students who were willing to commit their time after school to learning about how to improve the health and wellness of their school environment.

For the next four months, YES staff and teens went to Helms once a week to lead two hour sessions designed to let youth educate youth about the importance of reducing sugar consumption and increasing water consumption. They put together activities and lessons that were fun and eye-opening, such as measuring out the amount of sugar in different types of drinks, mapping out all of the retail stores that sell sugary drinks near Helms, and reviewing TV and magazine ads that illustrate the marketing tactics of SSB companies who are clearly trying to get youth of color to purchase their products.

While all of this peer-to-peer education was fruitful in creating individual lifestyle changes, it became clear that an environmental change needed to occur in conjunction. Helms Middle School is surrounded by retail stores that carry SSB’s. In fact, there are 12 retail outlets within a quarter mile of Helms that sell these products. During our afterschool meetings, YES provided an alternative beverage by bringing cold, fruit-infused water. During the rest of the week, however, Helms students reported that they were unlikely to use the school’s drinking fountains, several of which were poorly maintained, and were more likely to purchase an SSB at a nearby store.

As a team, YES and the Helms students decided to advocate for a new hydration station to be installed on campus. They scanned the school in order to find a location that would appeal to the most youth, and decided that the type of station they wanted was a chilled, filtered, refillable drinking water bottle station. Next steps were to survey the student population and find out how many SSBs they consumed on average, and if they would drink more water if their campus had a filling station like the one previously described.

A high percentage of Helms students responded to the survey and informed the C2C teens that they would indeed take advantage of chilled, filtered water if it was provided for them at school. After analyzing the data, the young researchers compiled their findings into a report and made sure it was shared with the right people in the community. This ultimately led to the purchase of two hydration stations by the city of San Pablo, and the guarantee that they would be installed in a timely fashion, in order to provide Helms students with a healthy, affordable alternative to harmful sugary drinks.* Through this process, YES’s C2C teens were able to see the importance of both education and access to their fellow students. Neither one would be effective without the other. It was exciting to see youth start to change their habits, and it feels even better to see a change being made to their environment that will make their healthy life choices easier to follow through on.

*Update 9/22/17: The first of two hydration/water bottle filling stations has been installed at Helms Middle School. This is a significant step in our efforts to curb overconsumption of sugar in San Pablo by offering students an appealing alternative to soda, especially now that they have received education about why this is important!

Description of Barriers Encountered and Identified or Proposed Solutions 

One of the biggest barriers to this project was, and is, the fact that 90% of the population of San Pablo lives within .25 miles of a retail outlet that sells sugary drinks. This fact, in tandem with the shocking amount of money that the SSB industry puts into marketing their products to youth of color, creates an environment where 73% of 12-18 year olds are drinking at least one SSB per day, and many teens reported drinking several. Sugary drinks taste good, and many youths are accustomed to having them. For this reason, we made sure our young health educators were from the same community as our students at Helms, and had overcome the same hurdles. The message was well received when coming from teens that the students looked up to.

Another barrier is the costs associated with installing a new hydration station. First of all, we had to find someone to purchase the station. When we found out that the San Pablo Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force was considering making that purchase, we had to ensure that the school and district would be willing to make the necessary modifications to the campus to install such an item. An ongoing horror story was the saga of Richmond’s Kennedy High School, who did a similar project, and the stations were purchased and never installed. To avoid this dilemma, we stayed in regular contact with WCCUSD and San Pablo to make sure everyone was communicating and on the same page.

Future Directions/Sustainable Success

During the next 1-2 years, we will continue to provide health education using the same peer-to-peer model at Helms Middle School. The emphasis will shift to promoting the usage of the hydration station and communicating with Helms students to make sure that, in addition to knowing why drinking water is important, they have water bottles and the stations are maintained. YES will continue to attend meetings of the San Pablo Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force to stay informed on ongoing efforts to combat childhood obesity in San Pablo. YES will also stay in communication with BACR and will hopefully be able to continue sending teens into the afterschool program at Helms to speak about the importance of reducing daily sugar intake. Beyond that, we will continue to expand, and hope that the results of installing these stations at Helms will prove to be effective, and that other schools in San Pablo will follow suit. Our 2 years and beyond bold goal is to have chilled, filtered, water bottle filling stations at every school in San Pablo.


Youth Leader Egypt sharing about the Youth Engagement Team planning process.


Youth Leaders learning effective and fun lessons from a professional health educator.


YET Teens leading teambuilding games/icebreakers to build rapport with their students.


Youth Leader Nikeyda facilitating an activity for Helms students.


Helms student guessing how much sugar is in a few popular drinks.


Coming up with survey questions with Youth Leader Sara.


Identifying barriers to healthy water consumption. Many Helms students choose not to drink from dirty, poorly maintained drinking fountains.


Helms students learning about the effects of sugar on the teeth.


Helms Students creating a poster to share their new knowledge with peers.

The culmination of an eight month project focused on improving the health and wellness of students at Helms Middle School.

From left: Youth Leaders Nikeyda, Kahlil, Temoc, Billy, Tajzhane, Sara, Egypt, Peter (Adult Ally)