Cris Escalera: 'Education can change your life'
When Cris Escalera won a $1,000 award from his academic department, he let it get personal.
The Michael E. Penland Family Award, given out by the UGA College of Education's department of kinesiology, aims to promote Exercise as Medicine and Escalera, through his mother and grandmother, knows about the dangers of diabetes. The result? He created a weekly exercise program in a local underserved neighborhood, as well as a health fair.
On Thursday mornings, Escalera joins some friends and residents of the Pinewoods community, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on Athens' east side, for about 45 minutes of walking and resistance training. Many of the participants are stay-at-home moms who not only enjoy the community of early-morning walkers, but also benefit from the healthy tidbits Escalera infuses into the program.
"Through the grant we bought a bunch of equipment—medicine balls and mats, for example—to increase flexibility and balance, which are the main exercises recommended for everyone," said Escalera, who is starting his senior year this fall as an exercise and sports science major. "We finish up having a conversation about a health topic or issue."
One week, for example, Escalera talked about the connection between exercise and controlling diabetes. Another week, the group discussed general eating habits and foods that raise your blood sugar.
"And I try to make it all culturally relevant; I'm not going to tell them to eat broccoli," he added. "Instead, when you make steak, don't use butter, use olive oil."
These lessons are important for Pinewoods residents, many of whom deal daily with diabetes, a disease prevalent in the Hispanic community. Escalera's grandmother, too, suffers from diabetes and needs kidney dialysis; his mother had gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with his younger sister.
This spring Escalera broadened his educational reach in the community by organizing a health fair for residents. He partnered with the UGA College of Pharmacy to bring students to check residents' blood pressure and give one-on-one health consultations. "It's about education, really," he said, noting that his award also helped pay to organize the health fair. "One blood glucose test isn't going to change your life, but education can change your life."
Escalera's connection with the Pinewoods neighborhood began through his job as soccer coach at Athens' Coile Middle School. Soccer is one of his passions, he says, and he was looking for a way to coach while at UGA. Through a friend he found out about the position at Coile, and then further connected with his players through their Hispanic heritage. Escalera, who grew up in South Georgia, is Mexican-American.
"So that was pretty cool that we shared the same cultural background," he added. "And then I found out that a lot of the kids live in Pinewoods; one of the star players, his mom is in the walking program."
Coaching is the perfect blending of Escalera's interests. As an exercise and sports science major, he wants to help share knowledge about exercise. As a soccer player, he can share his love of the game and also connect with students on a different level.
As Escalera's senior year progresses, he says, he would love to bridge his experiences with his players', introducing them to a world beyond the tight-knit Pinewoods community.
"I feel like I'm the person I am now because of my coaches and teachers in the past. I want to say, 'Hey, I came from a similar circumstance as you; you just have to work hard at it," he said. "We're hoping to get them out to the UGA campus, maybe take them to a dining hall or Ramsey and the Biomechanics Lab and see what it's like to be a UGA student."
In addition to his work with the Pinewoods community, Escalera is very involved on campus. Among his many activities, he is a member of the Arch Society, a recipient of a CURO research assistantship, and a graduate of the LeaderShape Institute, a program that is conducted by the UGA Center for Leadership and Service.