It’s the least healthy city in King County — but not for long

AUBURN, Wash. -- The life expectancy in Auburn is about a decade less than the life expectancy just 30 minutes up the road in Bellevue.

After learning this stark reality in a King County health report, the city created a blue-ribbon committee with a mission to become the healthiest city in the state by next year. But the idea of health goes far beyond eating right, exercising and going to the doctor.

Living a long, healthy life has a lot to do with the resources and education that's within reach. In recent years, Auburn realized it wasn't successfully reaching its rapidly growing, diverse pockets of its population.

In 2000, Auburn was 80 percent white. Less than two decades later, it's less than 60 percent white and certain demographics, like Hispanics, have more than tripled in numbers.

The city decided to reach out to Hispanic parents at Gildo Rey Elementary School to start a conversation on health and find out what resources they needed.

"I wanted to be more inclusive to our Latino community," said Pat Bailey, a retired nurse who now works for the City of Auburn on community health. "I felt like they really wanted in and they didn't know how to do it."

In the health report, factors that contributed to lower life expectancy in Auburn included low income, mental distress, unemployment, obesity and diabetes.

But instead of the city telling these parents how to lead healthier lives, they asked the parents what resources would help make their lives healthier and more safe.

The parents gave them a list, from questions on accessing health care to English classes, to information on bullying, gangs and first aid. Together, they met with community leaders every month at Gildo Rey.

I met with the parents to get an idea of what health means to them and how these classes have changed their lives.

"Once we got the first meeting rolling it was, okay, yeah, let’s come to the next one and let’s come to the next one," said Elias Barrera, a Gildo Rey parent.

"We wanted to get together constantly for more information," Maricela Tafolla said.

"I have more security because before, I had a fear of talking to the police," Marcela Romero Diaz explained.

She said she thought that because she didn't speak English, the police wouldn't understand her. But police officers came to one of the meetings, gave them direct numbers to call and explained what services they offer. "That gave me a lot of confidence to continue being out and about," Romero Diaz said. "Now my child walks to and from home and I’m calm.”

A few of the parents explained that they used to keep their kids at home during school breaks because they thought all of the programs were too expensive and out of reach. Through these meetings, they learned about free programs available to them that have allowed them and their kids to be more active and involved.

The city also coordinated CPR and disaster-preparedness classes and taught parents how to keep children safe from internet predators. It's a holistic approach on health that leaders hope will have a big impact.

"I really feel like our parents feel like they’re better parents and teachers to their children because their children are seeing them come and bridge the gap with the schools and model the future they want for their kids," said Lenny Holloman, the principal at Gildo Rey Elementary School.

Holloman said this program with the parents and city is contributing to the success of his school, which is a success story all its own.

In 2017, the Puget Sound Business Journal ranked Gildo Rey 98th on its list of best elementary schools in the region. By 2018, the school had vaulted to No. 5 on the list.

The same year, Gildo Rey was one of only two schools in the state of Washington to be named a National Distinguished School.

At Gildo Rey, 80 percent of its students are minorities and for many, English is a second language. To add to it, 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The school and its parents are working hard to break socioeconomic barriers.

"It should not be a difference between rich and poor but at the same time, the poor have less resources," parent Jesus Carrillo said.

It's a gap the city, Gildo Rey and community members are working hard to bridge.

"Our students, their children, see the confidence [in their parents]," said Nelda Trujillo, who works in the office at Gildo Rey. "They see the, 'I’m not hesitating; I know where to go; I know what to ask.' That sets that example and then you know, happy strong parents, happy strong kids."

"How far can we go?" Bailey said. "How many groups are there? There's no stopping it now."

The city is also working with its growing Marshallese community, local tribes and others. To learn more about the committee's efforts, click here.

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