Fremont Wellness Center and Community Garden

The Wellness Center and Community Garden at Fremont High School is a approximately 2,800 square feet, with four medical exam rooms, two mental health counseling rooms, a dental exam room and a conference room for student meetings. The center will be operated by UMMA Community Clinic while the mental health services will be provided by Special Services for Groups.

Exam room in the center.

Community Garden








The new garden, which now covers one acre adjacent to the center and was built by the LA Neighborhood Land Trust, has a fruit orchard with stone fruit trees, two dozen garden beds for vegetable growing and a medicinal garden. To maintain the garden, a Gardening Apprentice Program, has been launched at the school and 15 students get to learn about growing fruits and vegetables, plant biology and botany.

New Health Center at Washington Prep.

The Wellness Center at Washington Prep

Los Angeles Lakers’ defender Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest) brought an exuberant crowd of more than 900 Washington Preparatory High School students to their feet recently as he walked his towering frame to the front of their auditorium and stood behind the podium. As he began speaking,  however, the audience quieted down and sat in rapt attention.  He spoke of life, its challenges and the importance of seeking knowing they are not alone.

“Every morning you should wake up and ask yourself, ‘Am I on the path to reaching my goals?’ If not, you have to ask yourself some questions,” he said. “It is important that you overcome your difficulties.”

The basketball star came to the West Athens high school for a heart to heart talk with students about mental illness. The Lakers’ defender shared how he has persevered through his own hardships, including his parent’s divorce, living in the projects, overcoming depression and anger issues.  Getting help and “having somebody in your court,” is essential, he told the teens. Peace was there to celebrate the opening of the Washington Preparatory Wellness Center, an on-campus healthcare facility where students and the community at-large can receive dental, vision, mental  and physical healthcare.
The facility, which will be run in partnership with St. John’s Well Child & Family Center and opens to the public April 26, will also provide assistance with health insurance enrollment. It is one of 12 new school based health centers that have opened in the Second District and a model for the way healthcare can be delivered with schools acting as community hubs.  Opening school based health centers has been a top priority for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who secured more than $300,000 in county funds to help open the Washington Prep Center.  Studies have shown that schools with health centers have higher student attendance and less truancy.

In many neighborhoods and communities throughout the district, chronic health conditions such as childhood obesity, asthma and mental health disorders, are significantly higher than in other parts of the county.  Chairman Ridley-Thomas pledged to expand health care in the district when he took office in 2008, and he has since partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Compton Unified School District and community health clinics to open these centers.

“There is no shame in trying to get help when you are feeling bad,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas to the students. “The wellness center is going to be your resource. We are taking mental health challenges out of the closet. It is hard to succeed when these needs are not addressed.”

With more than 34 percent unemployment in the surrounding Watts/West Athens area and nearly a quarter of the student body in foster care, many Washington Prep students live with stress and may need mental health treatment but either cannot afford it or may feel wary about asking for it.  But at the Wellness Center, Los Angeles Unified School District mental health professionals will offer therapy, mental health consultations for individuals and families, conflict mediation, crisis intervention and psychological first aid in a convenient and confidential way.

Students at Washington Prep

“This connects the school community to much needed resources,” said Washington Prep Principal Todd Ullah. “Mental and physical health are paramount to learning.” Jacqueline Zendejas, a senior at Washington Prep, said she would like to study to become a registered nurse. Instead of missing a whole day of school to get to a doctor or dentist appointment, the center will allow students to take care of themselves in a convenient way, she said.

“I cannot explain the happiness this center will bring,” said Zendejas, who hopes to be accepted into Cal State Monterey Bay. “This will make life a lot better for students and for parents as well.”

New Prenatal Program for South L.A. Expectant Mothers

Expectant mothers in South Los Angeles can look forward to a new model of healthcare thanks to a $2 million-grant recently received by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

According to Dr. Erin Saleeby, the Director of Women’s Health Programs and Innovations for the Department of Health Services, African Americans and Latinas in South Los Angeles face a significantly higher risk of premature births. These same women often live below the poverty line and are provided with a lower standard of prenatal care. They are less likely to have access to transportation and frequent checkups.

“Premature births are one of the most difficult problems we have faced. It can impact a child for life and lead to problems learning and integrating into society,” Dr. Saleeby said. “In the past, prenatal care has had a narrow focus on simply providing medical treatment.”

But the new program, “Strong Start for Mothers and Newborns,” seeks to address the root of these premature births. The new initiative will integrate education, technology and healthcare into a holistic approach. The program will help educate expectant mothers about the impact of substance abuse, malnourishment and spousal abuse on the lives of their new children.

The initiative is being funded by Medicare and Medicaid and is expected to serve 4,000 mothers over the next four years. The services will be available at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, MLK outpatient center, Hubert H. Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center and Wilmington Community Clinic.

“By raising the standard of care, we are not only serving mothers,” said Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “We are raising the quality of life in our community for generations to come.”

Meet the MLK Hospital Street Naming Contest Winner

Congratulations to Yolonda Simmons, winner of our Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital street naming contest. For more than two months, hundreds of people voted on a name for the new street leading to the hospital, and Simmons’ entry, “Healthy Way, ” beat out 57 other contenders.

In gearing up for the opening of the brand new Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas invited county residents to come up with a name that would capture the spirit of the new medical center and encompass the goals of the surrounding community.

Simmons found out about the contest after reading Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ monthly newsletter.

“I’ve never entered any contest before but I wanted to have a voice,” Simmons said. “I really wanted to stress health. The hospital had a rocky road when it closed, and I wanted to reignite the excitement about the new hospital and that it is a healthy way now. I wanted to motivate and encourage those driving, walking and entering the hospital to strive for a healthier future.”

Nearly 800 residents took part in the online voting process , and Simmon’s is quick to note that her victory was not accomplished alone.

“My husband is my secret weapon,” said Simmons, who runs Free N One, a substance abuse program with her husband Ronald Simmons. “He was a social media manager for me and really got the word out in the community. We told everyone at a gathering to vote. If you were with us at a dinner we would not let you go unless you voted.”

When she told her husband that she had entered the contest, he began a social media campaign using Twitter and Facebook to support his wife’s entry.

“It’s important to me that the hospital has a positive image and a bright future because our community needs it, wants it and deserves it,” she said. “It is important that the community supports the positive image the hospital will bring.”

Chairman Ridley-Thomas noted that Simmon’s entry, Healthy Way, is much more than a street name.

“I congratulate Yolonda Simmons, who chose this name, to motivate and encourage those driving, walking and/or entering the area of the hospital to strive for a healthier future,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “The new hospital will be at the heart of an wellness complex that, when completed, will bring a level of healthcare excellence to the region.”

The Woman Building the New MLK Multi-Service Outpatient Center

All right, Esther Diaz, the senior project manager overseeing construction of the new Martin Luther King Multi-Service Outpatient Center in Willowbrook isn’t building the project all by herself. A crew of workers including, electricians, mechanics and plumbers have been working on the beautiful new facility since it broke ground last January.

Still, as the project manager on one of the most exciting health care construction projects in the county, she manages the $167-million project and is responsible for seeing that the center is delivered by the fall of this year. When completed, the 135,550-square-foot multi-service center will be one of three jewels on the MLK Medical Center Campus, joining the new hospital and new Center for Public Health. Together, these facilities will deliver preventive, emergency, diagnostic and wellness healthcare services to the residents of South Los Angeles in an unprecedented way. In the coming years, the campus will include a new mental health urgent care center, medical office space, residential facilities for seniors and medical interns.

Since the project broke ground last year, construction workers have been hard at work installing the multi- service outpatient center ’s structural steel frame, exterior walls, and enclosing the building. To date, mechanical, electrical and plumbing are estimated to be about 70 percent complete and interior finishes are now underway, according to Diaz.

When completed, the facility will undergo a rigorous inspection process by state and county officials before opening. The center will offer specialty treatments such as dialysis, physical therapy, urgent care and outpatient surgery. Until that time, the 41-year-old East Los Angeles native is a familiar sight overseeing the construction, amid the exposed wiring and dry wall, clad in a hard hat and steel-toed boots.

Diaz also oversees 130 construction workers, many of whom are part of the local worker hiring program, a policy championed by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas to ensure that local workers who live near the project perform at least 30 percent of the total construction labor hours.

As a 15-year veteran of the Department of Public Works, Diaz sees to it that construction projects throughout the county transition smoothly from conceptual design to actual construction. Along the way, she too has undergone a transition — from proving herself the equal of her peers in a male-dominated field to now leading the way.

“Over the last years, I’ve gained confidence and I’m more relaxed,” Diaz said. “Now I can joke a little more when I’m facilitating a meeting. In the beginning, I was serious because I had to earn the respect from the people in the room with more experience.”

Diaz visits the construction site at least twice a week, and the rest of the time she is troubleshooting issues as they come up — she’s part engineer, part architect, part construction manager.

“I go through some challenges, although they don’t happen on a daily basis, they do happen,” said Diaz. “This job requires you to be a problem solver, listener, analyzer and have the ability to multi-task well.”

As one of the youngest in a family of eight, Diaz learned about hard work from her immigrant parents. Both were blue collar workers who came from Mexico to Los Angeles where they found jobs; her father as a welder and her mother as an assembly line worker. Although her father Alberto died six years ago of cancer, her mother Elodia still lives in Pico Rivera .

“My parents were very hard workers who were very dedicated to their jobs. They never took a day off work,” said Diaz. “My mom worked in the Central Crenshaw area and had to ride the bus for an hour and a half to get to work but she still made it to work on time.”

After graduating from Garfield High School in 1989, Diaz attended California State University, Northridge, where she earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering. For a while she considered majoring in business but after taking her first engineering class she discovered her love for math. She went on to get her master ‘ s degree in construction management at California State University, Long Beach.

“After taking an engineering class, I knew I had found my passion,” said Diaz. “I can’t say that it was easy. It was challenging but it was also rewarding.”

On her way up the career ladder, she occasionally felt the sting of being overlooked and not taken seriously; Diaz recalls one meeting in particular where a colleague gave credit for her idea to a man in the room.

“I’ve learned to deal with it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard knowing that I have to prove myself a little bit more and that I have to validate myself with facts but as a woman we have to work a little bit harder.”

But her hard work has paid off and she has the full backing and confidence of her bosses—both of whom are men.

“We are very proud of Esther,” said Diaz’ supervisor David Howard, Los Angeles County Department of Public Works assistant deputy director. “She’s an excellent employee and project manager.”

When Diaz is not at work, she enjoys hiking and traveling out of the country. A glimpse of her passport will reveal that she’s been to Spain, Greece, London, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Hawaii.

Her advice to young women eager to follow in her footsteps:

“Do it. It’s going to be hard work and require a lot of dedication, but at the end of the day it’s very satisfying,” Diaz said. “You can overcome any obstacle that comes your way. If people tell you something is hard. Don’t believe it until you try it.”

Helping Victims of Human Trafficking

When Michelle Guymon first heard the term “sex trafficking,” she figured it was not her problem. After all, as a probation officer in Los Angeles County, she had no control over what happened in faraway places like Thailand or Belarus.

“The only thing I knew about trafficking was that it was a bad thing happening to kids in other countries,” she said. “I had heard about them on TV.”

But to her dismay, she quickly learned that these girls were here in Los Angeles. Even worse, she had been dealing with them for years as a probation officer and therapist helping kids through childhood traumas and their arrests as prostitutes. Like many in law enforcement, she just didn’t comprehend it.

“I realized that these were the girls that I had always worked with. They were being exploited sexually rather than being a teenage prostitute,” she said. “I think looking back on it, that realization was a hard moment. There were things I could have done better to move them forward and help them along that path, if I had known better. Now that I know better, we have to do better.”

And do better, she has. As the head of the Probation Department’s Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Project, Guymon is one of the key players in getting better services to the young victims as they enter the probation system. She was instrumental in applying for a state grant that allowed the county to begin a separate court program that diverts young girls away from incarceration and into programs and therapy that might help them get out of the life of commercial sexual exploitation. She has also established a pilot program in South Los Angeles—the epicenter of the sex trafficking problem—to create a safety net with a protocol for these girls.

Addressing the issue of human trafficking is a priority for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“I intend to do everything in my power to address this problem and help these young people leave conditions that absolutely no one should endure,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas.

There is much, however, that can be done. Through her work Guymon came to realize that before girls are trafficked they come into contact an average of 33 times with local authorities — whether it is through law enforcement agencies,  social workers  or health care workers. Both the officials coming into contact with the girls and the community at large need more education in order to help them. Most importantly, these girls must be seen as victims—not as criminals. The average age of girls coerced or forced into sex work is 12, and for many, the consequences are tragic. In just the last two months, one victim of sex trafficking was found dead in the sands of Newport Beach and another burned to death in South LA.

“Young girls go to the emergency room and to public health clinics—that is a huge point of contact,” she said. “If nurses and health practitioners knew and they asked, ‘wait a minute, why is this girl at 15 here by herself, why is she beat up?’ Then when she comes in contact with people, different questions will be asked.”

Ideally, Guymon would like the county to launch similar public awareness campaigns on sex trafficking as the domestic abuse and the Safe Surrender Don’t Abandon Your Baby campaigns. Also, the laws have to change. Some progress has been made with the passage of Proposition 35 ordering tougher sentencing laws against traffickers. However, girls are still treated like criminals, arrested for prostitution, sent through the criminal justice system and are punished more severely than the clients paying to have sex with them.

“These kids run a lot. So the more people are aware, the more we can make services available sooner,” she said. “Right now there is no countywide educational outreach.”

Growing up in Utah, she realized how sheltered her life had been when she moved to Los Angeles to work in a group home as the recreational director. Although she originally wanted to be a women’s college basketball coach, she found her true calling was working with at-risk kids. In 1989, she joined the probation department and has not looked back since.

As a ball player at the University of Utah, her father always told her she was better on offense than defense. Although she no longer plays basketball, she is still better at offense—especially when it comes to helping out these young girls. She has learned from her mistakes. She no longer asks them too many questions about their traumas; too many of the kids she saw began unraveling when she delved too deeply into their pain. She no longer believes these kids should be locked up to be protected. Instead, she could be seen as a lighthouse, where kids can seek her out when they are ready to find their way.

“You have to get to a place where you believe in their resilience and make a strong connection with these kids and love them through it,” she said. “No matter how many times they run, they can always reach back and we will always be there to support them. That is the best thing we can do.”