By Kellie Schmitt
Wander through Bakersfield’s Stiern Park in the mornings and you’ll likely find a group of energetic women exercising to lively dance beats. You might see mothers pushing strollers along a paved path, or kids sliding down a blue playground chute.
Stiern Park wasn’t always such a pleasant place, but the Greenfield Walking Group changed the park from a haven for crime into a thriving community green space.
A few years ago, the park was a hotbed of gang activity. Stray dogs prowled the perimeter. Dirty needles and broken alcohol bottles littered the ground. Neighbors knew to stay away.
“We wanted to be active and healthy, but we didn’t know where to go,” said Gema Perez, 45. “We thought about walking in the park since it was the closest for us, but it was too dangerous.”
Perez and other members of a local walking group decided to transform their local park and improve their fitness levels in the process. Community organizers and city leaders have lauded the Greenfield Walking Group’s accomplishments as a model for grassroots initiatives that improve residents’ health. Those accomplishments are especially relevant in the Central Valley, where obesity rates are among the highest in the state.
“How exciting that a national example is coming from Bakersfield, from the people you think you have to educate?” said Jennifer Lopez, a community activist who has worked for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Project (CCROPP). “The people living the reality every day are the ones finding the solution.”
Finding Somewhere to Go
A nutrition class at the Greenfield Family Resource Center spurred the idea for the walking group in 2006. Armed with greater knowledge of health and fitness, the participants were eager to start exercising on their own, said Nora Ortiz, the nutrition project coordinator.
“It was neat to see how devoted the parents were to getting more physical activity,” Ortiz said.
The problem, though, was finding a place to go. Gyms were expensive, and the one nearby park—Stiern—wasn’t an appealing option. Still, the mostly Spanish-speaking women gathered in the park after dropping their children at school. They dodged the remnants of the previous night’s activities, and struggled to push strollers along a slanted, grassy path.
The members, who called themselves the Greenfield Walking Group, wanted to change their environment, but they weren’t sure how to do it.
“The first challenge was getting over the fear,” member Perez said. “There was a lot of door knocking to get the funds.”
They started meeting with Lopez, who worked in outreach for CROPP. Lopez said she wanted to connect with the natural leaders of the community, neighborhood residents already pushing for change. Together, they invited city officials to the park to see what was needed, such as improved lighting and fencing. Walking group members called animal control to take care of the stray dogs, and spent the weekends painting over graffiti. They worked with Kaiser Permanente and Game Time to put in new playground.
The neighbors also worked with the Chamber of Commerce to construct a new path, helping to level the ground before the cement trucks came.
“They created relationships with City Hall – people knew when the Greenfield Walking Group was calling,” Lopez said.
In the process, park usage soared and residents have gotten fitter. The walking group model got national attention, and was featured on programs such as Despierta America. Similar communities such as Arvin, Weedpatch and Lamont are trying to replicate the walking group, and state agencies are using it as an example in community planning efforts, Lopez said.
Despite the success, the group isn’t resting yet. They’re still hoping to get a park bathroom installed, and they’d like to have goals for soccer fields. They’ve also expanded to offer free morning exercise classes, complete with kickboxing and dancing moves.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Maria Valasquez, 35, lifted her legs high in the air as she led a dozen aerobics enthusiasts. Three years ago, Valasquez weighed 280 pounds and couldn’t even kneel down. One foot was swollen, and wounds from varicose veins covered her legs.
“I knew I needed to lose weight,” she said. “Now I feel a lot healthier and I don’t suffer from as much stress.”
The sores from Valasquez’s veins have healed and she’s lost more than 50 pounds. She’s also cooking healthier at home for her four children. In her free time, Valasquez studies kickboxing and Zumba videos to create her park routines.
“Sometimes you need friends to push you, friends who are enthusiastic about exercising,” she said.
New participants are joining the group, and its membership has soared to 60 people. The newest member Elodia Aguirre, 41, came to the park in March after hearing about it from a friend.
“I wanted to lose weight, which is hard because I like to eat,” she said, laughing.
Being accountable to a group is already keeping Aguirre motivated to eat healthier and be active, she said.
More than anything, the group has created a strong sense of community, participants say. They feel empowered knowing they can create change in their own neighborhoods.
“I feel very satisfied that people are interested in our story and listen to us,” Perez said. “We’re changing the community, making it safer and healthier.”