Lockdowns, Remote Learning Contribute To Surge In Childhood Obesity

Poor nutrition, stress and a loss of physical activity when schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be worsening the problem of childhood obesity nationally and in Connecticut.

Nationally, obesity among youth ages 2 to 19 increased from 19.3% in 2019 to 22.4% in 2020, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The same age group saw the rate of increase in their body mass index (BMI) double during the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The heaviest youths experienced the highest gains.

In Connecticut, the obesity rate among ages 10 to 17 rose from 13.3% in 2018-19 to 15.3% in 2019-2020, according to the Johnson Foundation report.

Pediatrician referrals of children have nearly tripled at the Pediatric Obesity Center for Treatment, Research and Education at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. In 2019, it had 890 referrals, which grew to 2,491 in 2021. It now has a waiting list of nearly a year, with 642 children on it, said Dr. Christine Finck, the center’s surgical director.

“The ramp-up in referrals was so acute and took us by surprise,’’ Finck said. “It’s really been a tough challenge.�

To meet the demand, the center is expanding its program—which offers nutrition education, counseling, and even bariatric surgery for children with severe obesity—into Farmington, Fairfield and Westport, said Dr. Melissa Santos, the division chief of pediatric psychology and the clinical director of the center.

“Kids’ rates of obesity are significantly higher now than they’ve ever been,’’ Santos said, with some patients weighing 400, 500 and even 800 pounds.

Gardening And Jumping Jacks

A variety of programs across Connecticut are tackling childhood obesity.

Joey Listro

With 13 gardens at city schools, New Britain ROOTS teaches children to improve their eating habits by growing collard greens, spinach, lettuce, squash, and even tilapia in a new fish reservoir. Executive Director Joey Listro said ROOTS educates 500 children at a time, and it’s been therapeutic to see them back outdoors after the stress of the pandemic.

“Gardening has a very calming effect,’’ Listro said. “And if they don’t have media around them, they can be left alone with their own thoughts.�

One of the longest-running programs in the state is the Bright Bodies Healthy Lifestyle Program, which Mary Savoye, a registered dietitian, started 23 years ago at Yale New Haven Hospital. She said participants in the program have seen a 1.7-unit drop in their BMI after one year, compared to a 1.6-unit increase in the control group.

Bright Bodies provides 70 families a year with nutrition education, behavior modification and exercise classes, now held on Zoom and featuring planks, lunges and jumping jacks.

The effect of the pandemic on children’s weight and their ability to exercise has been stark, Savoye said.

“There was a limited amount of exercise happening and a lot of emotional eating,’’ she said.

She said nutrition also suffered in many households, where parents were buying unhealthy, processed food because it had a long shelf life.

Melissa Santos

In Hartford, Santos said isolation, stress and excess screen time when learning was remote contributed to childhood obesity. One of her program’s goals is to have the children spend no more than two hours a day online instead of the 12 or more hours she’s seeing. Its other “Fit5� daily goals are: eat five fruits and vegetables, have four servings of calcium, give and get three compliments, exercise for one hour and have no sugar-sweetened drinks.

Santos said some of her patients rarely went outdoors during the pandemic.

“I had one mom say, ‘My child looks ashy,’ � Santos said. “She’s like, ‘I make him go sit outside in the sun for a half an hour a day like he’s a houseplant.’ �

Better Self-Esteem

Many of Bright Bodies’ participants come from low-income families, and about two-thirds are Black or Latino—all groups disproportionately affected by childhood obesity, Savoye said.

But two participants say they’ve lost weight, are eating in moderation, and feel better about themselves now.

Sol Gonzalez of New Haven said her pediatrician recommended Bright Bodies last spring because her son AngelGabriel Coronel’s blood sugar levels put him at risk for diabetes. Since joining, AG, as his family calls him, has lost 12 pounds. The fifth-grader at Nathan Hale School said he gets less out of breath now playing basketball.

“Before, I used to think that other kids would make fun of me when I wasn’t looking, but now, I don’t think they really are,’’ AG said. “I’ve gotten lighter, and I can do a lot of things that I couldn’t before, like I can play sports better.�

Tears welled up in Alysha Newton-Cueto’s eyes as she talked about being teased for being overweight while growing up.

“I used to get bullied a lot,� Newton-Cueto, 21, of New Haven, said. “Kids said I should drop off a bridge.�

But she said things are looking up for her thanks to Bright Bodies. Her mother, Tiquanda Newton, said her daughter had done the program at age 10 and asked if she could do it again when her self-esteem was low last fall. She can take part at her age because she has cognitive and learning disabilities, Newton said.

The family’s eating better and doing the Zoom workouts together. Newton said she’s lost 14 pounds and Newton-Cueto has lost 13.

“It’s something that was missing in our family for a long time,’’ Newton said of Bright Bodies.

Cover Photo: Angel Gabriel Coronel, 10, of New Haven, has lost 12 pounds since joining the Bright Bodies program. He is heading into his third 12-week session. He has learned about healthy eating and enjoys the exercise program.

Photo by Melanie Stengel

Publisher’s Note:  CTLN and c-hit.org collaborate to best serve the Connecticut Hispanic, Latino community.

NHLN Opinion+: Sarah Jane Knoy

Welcome to this week’s episode of NHLN Opinion+ where we talk about major issues the Latinx and underrepresented communities face in the New Hampshire community.

This week we invited Sarah Jane Knoy, Executive Director of Granite State Organizing Project. Granite is a non-profit that promotes equal respect for all communities from a faith and democratic values perspective. They try to unite all communities by tackling issues such as poor housing, failing schools, barriers to citizenship, and substandard working conditions. The pandemic caused unemployment and poverty to become concerning problems in New Hampshire. “We switched from being a community center, a place where people can drop in and learn to do emergency food distributions,â€� explained Executive Director Knoy on the transition from an organizing organization to a social organization. 

Covid has prevented people from meeting in person as it has caused people to work several jobs to make ends meet. Parents are working between two to three jobs as the minimum wage is at $7.25/hour and the cost of living is high. Compared to the rest of New England, New Hampshire has the lowest minimum wage. “The state legislature has passed an increase in the minimum wage a couple of times and Gov. Sununu has vetoed it every time,â€� explains Knoy as the problem is not within the presidency, but with the governor of New Hampshire and those in power. 

As the state is aging, the Latinx community is growing and is the only way New Hampshire will grow. “The Trump years really hurt the community. We lost people due to deportation. That created a lot of fear and that fear means if you’re a member of a mixed-status family you’re afraid to go to the regular service agencies,â€� explains Knoy as she talks about the challenges brought by former president Trump onto the Latinx community. 

A lot of the members of the Granite state are religious. “Whether their faith is in the words of Jesus or the teaching of Mohamad or from the rabbinical tradition and of people of a faith but no particular religion we all come together because we believe in the shared humanity and the shared dignity that all humans deserve,� explains Knoyon how faith and similar values unite people. Bettering humanity and the fact that we were all created equal is the biggest motivator of engagement. Organizations that are not denominational believe in equal opportunity and rights without distinction.

The current administration has made progress in addressing poverty in New Hampshire through legislation. “The Biden administration implemented the Child Tax Refund and we have been helping people sign up and get those refunds. We’ve been helping people sign up to get the stimulus checks and the recovery checks,� explains Knoy.

Emergency Rental Assistance assists in living expenses for those struggling. Racial discrimination has been another issue faced due to the polarization presented through media. “Last year they passed the Divisive Concepts Law which says that school teachers can’t teach the history of racism and oppression in this country and the governor supported that. That has, I think, freed up some of the people who are threatened by the growing diversity of the state to lash out with a lot of weird behavior and hateful statements. It’s pretty telling that pretty much all of the people of color on the governor’s diversity task force resigned after he signed that law,� said Knoy. “I think we need a more enlightened state government and we need to not be so afraid of change and embrace the change that’s coming.�

Immigrants are the ones that are growing businesses and serving those in need. New Hampshire legislation needs to acknowledge these societal changes and not isolate them. Executive Director Knoy and her team have been advocating for a bill that would allow people without social security numbers to secure driver’s licenses as it can lead to a more safe environment. Young Organizers United is a program that brings high school students from immigrant and marginalized groups to receive leadership training on how to get politically involved and serve their communities. 

Resources mentioned in the video: 

Granite State Organizing Project Website: https://granitestateorganizing.org/

Granite State Organizing Project Phone Number: 603-668-8250

MALN Opinion+: Rosario Ubiera-Minaya

MALN Opinion plus is a space for our opinions, where we talk about current events and questions the Latino community is curious about!

This week on Opinion+ we were joined by Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, Executive Director for Amplify Latinx. The non-profit was founded in 2017 and acts as a bi-lingual catalyst that advocates for equity, diversity, and the inclusion of Latinos and people of color in Massachusetts. Executive Director Ubiera-Minaya, herself describes the organization as a “high-impact group of professionals, entrepreneurs, changemakers, disruptors, and advocates focused on closing opportunity gaps statewide.�

Opportunity is a huge driving force for Amplify Latinx. It is clear that not all groups of people start at the same place in life and the non-profit is working to build the wealth and prosperity of the Latino community by offering opportunities and pathways to success with their many programs. 

Last February, Amplify Latinx along with other Boston area social-justice groups filed an administrative civil rights complaint against the city alleging that the city government fosters discrimination towards Black and Latino-owned businesses by maintaining a public recruitment system that excludes these businesses from equally contracting opportunities. Executive Director Ubiera-Minaya, described that this can be seen largely in construction contracts where wealthier, white-owned businesses are often prioritized and placed in more attractive areas of the city where Latinos and other people of color are left out. 

As of now in February 2022, the administrative complaint has yet to be addressed by the city government but Amplify Latinx is watching closely as Mayor Wu’s administration attempts to address issues such as the ones described in their complaint. 

To hear more of this important conversation and learn about how you can get involved be sure to watch this week’s full episode of MALN Opinion+.

Resources mentioned in this episode: https://amplifylatinx.co/

RILN Opinion+: Tomás �vila

Welcome to another episode of RILN Opinion+ where we talk about major issues the Latinx and underrepresented communities face in the Rhode Island community.

This week we spoke with Tomás Ã�vila, Associate Director for the Office of Rhode Island Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity (ODEO). Associate Director Ã�vila works to diversify the workforce in Rhode Island and make the work environment more inclusive and welcoming for all identities. “Part of the office’s responsibility is to diversify the state employment so it will reflect the demographics of Rhode Island,â€� explained Ã�vila of the role of ODEO. “The second part of it is to make sure we recruit and diversify a set of individuals who can potentially be employed by the state.â€� 

Associate Director Ã�vila assists minorities pursuing to build businesses and making sure they receive equal opportunity. “We have the responsibility of the minority business enterprise and in that end, it is our responsibility to make sure that they get their due fair share of the investment that the state does in expenses,â€� explains Ã�vila. “Back in 1986, the state passed a law that said that a minority community is entitled to ten percent of all the expenses that the state does.â€� Associate Director Ã�vila has the responsibility to make sure minority communities receive the same funding and increase their opportunity. 

The pandemic caused the ten percent deal to minority business enterprises to be suspended due to an executive order placed by the governor. Fortunately, the executive order has been reversed. Another major issue was ODEO being able to recruit.

Within the last forty years, Rhode Island has become more diverse. “By 2043 Rhode Island is going to be a majority-minority state,� states Associate Director �vila as he explained the perpetual growth of diversity in Rhode Island. Within the current minority, the Latinx population is the fastest-growing population as they have grown by 45 percent while the Asian community has grown by 18 percent and the African American community has grown by 7 percent.

“Corporations and governments have a responsibility to actually help and make sure those individuals can grow,â€� Ã�vila calls the state government to create equal opportunity for the marginalized. “With Floyd’s death, the consciousness was raised that we need to be more intentional and practical.â€� 

Rhode Island faces the same problems in terms of workplace opportunity as the rest of the country. It all goes with the way we recruit. “Whether intentional or unintentional it has limited the growth of the minority community,â€� explains Ã�vila on the glass ceiling that exists in minorities.  “Managers need to break the mode of hiring individuals who look like them and hire people who are qualified.â€� This will lead to hiring people who will produce the results that managers want and fulfill the qualifications they are looking for. This is the key to closing the gap between them and us. 


Office of Diversity, Inclusivity, and Opportunity at Rhode Island: http://odeo.ri.gov/

Jobs in Rhode Island: https://www.employri.org/vosnet/Default.aspx

ILLN Opinion+: Andy Wade

On this episode of ILLN Opinion+, we spoke with Andy Wade, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI Illinois). NAMI Illinois is Illinois’ branch of a national grassroots organization that aims to support, educate and advocate for people and families affected by mental illness. NAMI’s 20 local affiliate offices currently serve over 50,000 people a year throughout the state. 

With so much misinformation and stigma surrounding conversations about mental health, Executive Director Wade described the need to normalize talking about these issues, citing that mental health is simply an extension of physical health. It is something all humans deal with.

“Everybody has mental health and we all, frankly, have days where our mental health might be better or worse than on other days, so the degree to which a mental health condition affects our lives is really the thing to pay attention to. The idea that some people have mental health issues and other people just don’t, that’s false,� he said.

It’s important to note that mental health is not universally experienced. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the topic because our understanding of the world and how we navigate it are so uniquely dependent on a variety of factors, one being race. Executive Director Wade says that there are currently gaps in the programs catered to minority groups, but NAMI looks to expand the way they offer their services.

“We are looking at everything through the viewpoint of equity, and equity means everybody gets what they need to thrive and succeed. And if you look at our society right now resources and support systems aren’t equally distributed,� he said.

In order to better serve the Black and Latinx communities, NAMI launched two culturally competent video series, Sharing Hope and Compartiendo Esperanza, that encourage these groups to partake in mental wellness dialogues in ways that resonate with them.

“If you ask about mental health, a lot of times people will clam up. If you ask about wellness, stress, how you’re feeling, it’s kind of a myth that people won’t talk about mental health issues, but we have to talk about them in the right way,â€� he explains. 

Executive Director Wade expressed NAMI’s awareness of a lack of resources in regards to Spanish language content and was very transparent in their efforts to fill that void through implementing new programs, such as Compartiendo Esperanza, building relationships with other organizations, and encouraging more bilingual and culturally competent professionals to join the mental health workforce.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

NAMI Illinois: https://namiillinois.org

NAMI Illinois en Español: https://namiillinois.org/en-espanol

Compartiendo Esperanza: https://namiillinois.org/compartiendo-esperanza/

Sharing Hope: https://namiillinois.org/sharing-hope/

CTLN Opinion+: Debra Greenwood

This week CTLN Opinion+ had the opportunity to speak with Debra Greenwood, President, and CEO of The Center for Family Justice (CFJ). Greenwood has spent more than 35 years in nonprofit management, with extensive experience in strategic planning, fundraising, community mobilization, and leadership and program development.

Prior to joining The Center for Family Justice, she served as a CEO at various YMCAs in the region, leading four successful Capital Campaigns that resulted in creating a new YMCA, two renovations at different Ys, and most recently remodeling The Center for Family Justice. 

The Center for Family Justice is a nonprofit that provides free, confidential crisis and supportive services to victims and survivors of domestic, sexual, and child violence in Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull. Dated back to 1895, it began as the Bridgeport YWCA, and in 2016 it became Connecticut’s first Family Justice Center to provide support and help in keeping victims safe under one roof in one safe place. Today, CFJ joins over 150 family justice centers in the U.S. and 16 other countries to help victims lead a life free of trauma and abuse.

CFJ offers 24/7 crisis hotlines for sexual and domestic violence victims. It welcomes non-English speakers by providing bilingual services. Greenwood says, “looking and understanding the people that we serve and in addition to our hotlines being in Spanish as well, we have language lines for those that speak many languages.” Their most prominent population support group is in Spanish, and they are now adding a Portuguese support group. Hotline services expanded to in-office visits, and satellite offices are available for those in the suburbs.

The pandemic affected all of us worldwide, but more so for those individuals who had no choice but to stay home with their abusive partners. She mentioned that abuse could be more than partner violence, not only husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. It could be a mother or father and their child. “We realized so many individuals were sheltering at home with their abusive partner.” “Schools were online, and kids weren’t going to school, so they didn’t have that safety net where they can speak to a teacher or guidance counselor or someone.”

After the lockdown, their office pivoted in less than 72 hours and went completely remote. “We never stopped with our hotlines or counseling those that we have been counseling.â€�

CFJ advocates and counselors continued working on their cases non-stop. They noticed their numbers were jumping well over 25-30 percent in the greater Bridgeport area.

Another great topic discussed is CFJ’s legal and attorneys’ support system. They provide free and confidential services to help victims through the journey of survivorship. This service is especially needed when the mother is trying to keep her children safe, and in many cases, the children are taken away.

A new empower house is opening in Fall 2022, supporting around 1,400 individuals and children who need a safe place to stay. This empower house was possible through the state’s financial support, foundation donations, and grants received.

Resources mentioned in this episode: https://centerforfamilyjustice.org/about-us/

Our secret badges of grief should turn us toward empathy

While growing up, the idea of grief was foreign to me. It was something I saw others endure on television or heard my family members mention. However, I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand how the absence of someone or something could create such a deep feeling.

It wouldn’t be until the age of 25 that I would finally understand the depth of grief after losing my grandmother. The loss of our family’s matriarch, a woman who was my second mother, shattered our family. Many years later, our family still finds itself re-learning what the world looks like without her. We have been forever changed by grief.

After experiencing grief myself, I felt as if I was holding a secret badge that at some point everyone would receive. This secret grief badge allowed me to feel more compassion toward others when I realized that they too were wearing the badge. I also became increasingly aware that my first experience with grief only meant that I would inevitably be receiving yet more badges with time.

When I talk to others who may have never experienced grief after losing a loved one, the conversation quickly turns toward an awkward silence or response. Truth is, the notion of losing someone scares us. Earning the secret badge of grief is something we’d rather ignore. But it is one of only a few certainties in the world: at some point, our heart will be the recipient of this difficult secret badge to carry.

Thanks to therapy and ongoing life experiences, I have come to learn that the nature of grief is more complicated than I realized. We can experience grief when we go through divorce, when we, or someone we love, is diagnosed with an illness when we lose our dream job, or experience violence.

During this time of the year (holidays), many of us may be experiencing some type of grief. Some of us are grieving a loved one. Some of us are grieving an illness. Some of us may be grieving the loss of a dream.

The ongoing pandemic has created yet another layer of grief for many of us. Millions of people around the world are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, while others grieve the loss of connections, normalcy, and safety. Since last year (2020) anxiety, stress, and depression have increased dramatically for millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. While some of us have the privilege of accessing mental health services, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, each year nearly 30 million adults and children living with mental health conditions in the U.S. go without any treatment.

This incredible disparity is due to lack of health care access or affordability issues, a limited number of providers available, or even lack of interest. I understand that therapy may not be for everyone, but I also believe that other types of support for individuals suffering through depression, anxiety, addiction, and grief should be readily available and encouraged.

Every day, we encounter individuals who are mourning something or someone. Some may be dealing with their grief alone, some may be hiding their grief behind anger or even a smile. We may not always recognize it when they are carrying their secret badge, but when we do, we must remember that it’s a difficult and painful badge to carry. It’s one we will all hold at some point, and showing compassion is an imperative part of carrying it.

Cover Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

Marcela Betancur

Marcela Betancur is the proud daughter of Colombian immigrants and currently serves as the director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.

Publisher’s Note: Our secret badges of grief should turn us toward empathy was first published on The Valley Breeze.

LPI and RI Latino News; partners in elevating the visibility and voices of Rhode Island’s Hispanic-Latino communities.

Do you have an idea for an Opinion-Editorial? Send us your suggestions to Info@LatinoNewsNetwork.com.

Massiel Abramson and “The Power of Our Narratives”

During the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinos, in particular, have suffered and faced disproportional health and economic impacts. For example, the group is 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their non-Hispanic white counterparts and 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, and 2.8 times more likely to die from the disease.

The pandemic is taking a toll on mental health. A 2021 Healthy Now survey found that about 60 percent of Americans were more likely to feel stressed, anxious, and/or depressed last fall as compared to 50 percent during the fall of 2020.

On June 5, 2020, Wallingford resident Massiel Abramson launched her online business Massiel Abramson, LMFT Therapy and Consulting. Abramson saw the opportunity during the pandemic to support people with their mental health.

“I have an entrepreneur spirit and it’s always been my calling to increase communication among individuals when it comes to mental health needs,� said Abramson.

Massiel Abramson is a sought-after guest speaker.

Abramson felt compelled to support a world struggling with social justice issues, isolation, and interpersonal conflicts. Her business provides mental health treatment, consultation, and coaching services.

“I see myself as the cousin, a Latinx Mary Poppins, you didn’t know you had, bringing an afro-centric, family-focused, and strength-based perspective. I bring humor, creativity, and playfulness to my work,� said Abramson.

She approaches therapy by addressing an individuals’ problems through family history and the community, she said.

Coming to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of 5, Abramson speaks fluent Spanish and provides services in both languages.

“I bring my cultural humility and pride into the work that I do,� said Abramson. “I find that my background and culture bring more people into the conversation, and I am able to highlight the need for all of us, American born or immigrants, to know ourselves from a cultural perspective,� she added.

Another motivation for starting her business came after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, an event that caused protests nationwide. As a person of color, Abramson felt the need to help with issues involving race and discrimination, she told the Latino Communities Reporting Lab. 

“In these recent times, we are being challenged on how much we are willing to push for change and equality,” Abramson wrote in Reflections of an Afro-Dominicana Family Therapist in 2017. “As an Afro-Dominicana, my silent torment has manifested in many different ways — from overly proving my worth at the workplace to graciously deflecting unwelcome advances and even chemically straightening my hair.”

She said that as a family therapist, she’s come to appreciate and value the power of “our narratives” and reflect on those stories during times of transformation. “More specifically, the stories that intersect with the different parts of my identity”, she said. “Through that intersectionality, she has come to explore and expand her “reflective capacity” — the ability to find different ways to process the choices “we’ve made and the circumstances we are dealt with.”

Jeanette Chavarria-Torres on building a successful business and reputation

Jeanette Chavarria-Torres’ neon yellow jacket and headgear strike the eye against shades of brown and silver metals in the background. While bulldozers encircle the area and a red crane rotates in the sky, Chavarria-Torres glances to her right at the ALLY construction site, 1229 W. Concord, in Lincoln Yards and has a moment of contemplation.

“Sometimes, I can’t believe it. It’s important to me what I do, and I know in my own way I’m making a difference, and that’s important to me. And I know that a lot of people now depend on me, and that is a lot of pressure sometimes,� she said through tear-filled eyes.

Jeanette Chavarria-Torres, owner of DCH Construction & Hauling
talks about overcoming challenges in reaching goals.

Jeanette Chavarria-Torres owns Franklin Park-based DCH Construction & Hauling, which moves material to and from construction sites. DCH is currently working under its largest deal since its inception in 2014, a half-million-dollar contract with mega-developer Sterling Bay on its Lincoln Yards development.

Lincoln Yards is branded “Where Chicago Connects� and consists of over 50 acres of land bridging the Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. The new infrastructure is projected to develop in phases over ten years and create approximately 10,000 construction jobs during the process.

Of those jobs, Sterling Bay has expressed a commitment to ensuring the inclusion of traditionally marginalized communities with about 30 percent participation from minority businesses and 10 percent from women business enterprises, according to a recent report presented before the Department of Planning & Development.

“I always say diversity is a verb, not a noun, and it has to be measurable,â€� said Keiana Barrett, Director of Diversity & Strategic Development at Sterling Bay. 

Keiana Barrett, Sterling Bay, and Jeanette Chavarria-Torres, DCH Construction & Hauling talk as work is underway on the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment in the background.

Chavarria-Torres says she gained the attention of Sterling Bay through networking and maintaining a relationship with Walsh Construction and the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), an organization that advocates for the growth of minority-owned women businesses. She says building connections is vital for anyone attempting to establish themselves in this industry.

“Definitely get connected with organizations that can help you meet the right people, networking is everything and building relationships,� she explained.

Earning a significant contract didn’t come easy to DCH Construction. However, Chavarria-Torres is honest about her journey and the struggles she faced in building her business as a 22-year-old single mother.

“I don’t come from connections. Honestly, every customer that I have, I have earned every single one of them by knocking on their door to ask for an opportunity. So I think that the hardest thing for me one, was that I was a woman, but I was also a very young woman,� she said. “I had to build my reputation.�

In her words, Chavarria-Torres used her savings to buy the “dinkiest� trailer and spent three years pitching herself to contractors before finally landing a gig with Walsh Construction. She credits her persistence and honesty to getting her foot in the door.

“I didn’t tell them I can take on the whole job, I just told them if I can get a piece of that contract, [and] perform well at my capacity, that’s all that I wanted,� she said.

This transparency established her reputation in the industry.

“They always know if Jeanette says that she can get you 10 trucks, she can get you 10 trucks and if I say I will get you 50, I will get you 50 trucks. I’ve learned what my capacity is and I don’t over-commit,� she explained.

Success in this field meant more to Chavarria-Torres than just establishing a business. It was a redemption story.

Her involvement in the industry came at an early age. Her father also owned a trucking business but faced challenges due to his language barrier as a native Spanish speaker. She says that as a 10-year-old girl, she helped him complete his paperwork, which branched into a passion for trucking as she grew older. Her father eventually lost his business and filed for bankruptcy after a deal with a contractor fell through.

“I decided then in high school that I was one day going to open a trucking company to kind of redeem ourselves from what happened,â€� she said. 

When she approached her father with the idea, he stressed the importance of education. 

“Under one condition that he would one day help me was that I needed to come home with a 4-year degree in business and accounting,â€� she said. 

She followed through with her promise, earning a 4-year degree in Business Administration, and a minor in Accounting from Dominican University.

She says that although her parents are not verbally expressive, she knows that they appreciate her hard work and dedication.

“I know they’re proud of me and I just want them to know that all their sacrifices and what they left behind in Mexico were worth it because it gave us a better life,� she said.

Barrett also expressed admiration of Chavarria-Torres’ journey and emphasized the importance of minority representation in all industries.

“We’re always happy to be able to collaborate with firms such as Jeanette’s that has such an inspiring story of how she’s been able to triumph and continue to move forward… I always say young people aspire to be what they see. So when they see individuals that look like them, it gives them a sense of hope and it broadens their lens to know what opportunities exist for them,� she said.

Keiana Barrett, Director of Diversity & Strategic Development at Sterling Bay – shares insights on being intentional in making diversity measurable.

Chavarria-Torres hopes her story motivates others to pursue business ventures despite the difficulties. 

She said, “I want other people to see that you can make it even though there’s a lot of obstacles. I don’t like to say obstacles, challenges, but I don’t think there’s a challenge that I have not been able to conquer. You just figure it out.�

Although there were many obstacles along the way, DCH Construction has grown from one “dinky� truck to now owning six. It has expanded its subcontracting area, allowing for collaboration with other women minority-owned businesses, and has earned a half-million-dollar contract with one of the largest real estate firms in Chicago. Chavarria-Torres hopes this experience creates a lasting relationship with Sterling Bay.

Chavarria-Torres poses with model of the future Lincoln Yards at Sterling Bay offices.

“This is my first big, private job so it’s a huge honor for me to just be part of the Lincoln Yards project and I’m very thankful for Walsh Construction and not only them, but Sterling Bay that have really opened the doors to want to see me succeed, and I know that this is just the beginning of many projects that we’ll be on together,� she said.

Cover Photo: Jeanette Chavarria-Torres at the construction site of Lincoln Yards. Credit: Sterling Bay

Ric Estrada: Representation Matters

Since 1857, Metropolitan Family Services has empowered families to learn, earn, heal, and thrive. Founded as the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the organization has helped families get through the devastating hardships of poverty, world wars, epidemics, and natural disasters.

“We are very proud in all the areas that are important to our community,” said Ricardo “Ricâ€� Estrada, president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services. “Economic stability, education, emotional wellness, and empowerment,” he continued in describing “the four E’s” paramount in realizing the non-profit organization’s mission.

Estrada was a guest on the Latino News Network (LNN) podcast, “3 Questions With…�, where he shared how Metropolitan Family Services assists marginalized communities that have proven to be resilient once again through almost two years of COVID-19.

Pandemic aside, he believes too many children are being left behind due to parents working several jobs to make ends meet. “It is incumbent on us as a society to make certain that people have a living wage so that children can be children; could learn and have their parents at home,” said Estrada when talking about how many children, particularly in immigrant families, have to help raise their younger siblings, especially during remote learning.

21.5 percent of Hispanic-Latino residents of Chicago, Illinois live below the poverty line, according to Welfare Info.

“I am excited to join the board of ComEd because the company is and will be at the forefront of our region’s energy, environment, workforce, and community investments,� said Estrada about his recent appointment as an independent director with ComEd.

He is the only Latino on the board of the largest electric utility in Illinois, and the sole electric provider in Chicago. “I think we need a Latino voice there to make certain that our community is not ignored, but is a part of every opportunity,” Estrada said about how he plans to guide ComEd on initiatives addressing the environmental challenges that impact the company and the public.

A poll by Earthjustice shows that registered Hispanic-Latino voters have a strong commitment to conservation, the environment, and a genuine interest in how climate change impacts their families and communities.

Estrada also serves on the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois as well as on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Grand Victoria Foundation, A Better Chicago, and Erie Elementary School.

SUGGESTION: Ricardo Estrada Named To ComEd Board Of Directors

“As a Latino, Latina, Latinx – we seem to be not seen in the media,” said Estrada about the lack of representation in newsrooms. “We need journalists to make sure that these stories are told accurately, with the right nuance, with the right perspective.”

Last year,  the U.S. Government Accountability Office produced a report on how the absence of Hispanics-Latinos in major newsrooms, Hollywood films, and other media industries deeply skewed non-Hispanics’ perceptions of that community.

Estrada and his wife, Beatriz Ponce de León, reside in Chicago and are the parents of two young adult daughters.

To listen to more episodes, click on this link: 3 Questions With…