Support strengthening to give  undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally 

“My kids were terrified to see the police,â€� testified Nadia Gonzales, a resident of Nashua who immigrated from Mexico. Gonzalez joined advocates in support of H.B. 1463 at a public meeting earlier this month hosted by the Transportation Committee of New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Local immigrants’ rights organizations in favor of three bills primarily sponsored Rep. George Sykes from Lebanon (D) say H.B. 1463, 1666, and 1093 would make roads safer for all motorists.

“A person can be in New Hampshire 100 percent legally but can be waiting for their papers for over a year because of bureaucratic delays,â€� said Sarah Knoy, American Friends Service Committee. â€œA warning became a nightmare for this family. Those children still today are terrified when they see a police officer. She’s back at home now, but the trauma lingers,â€� Knoy testified about an immigrant woman detained by ICE after a speeding ticket.



H.B. 1463 proposes a Real ID type of driver’s license allowing people to travel inside the U.S without a passport.

If approved, H.B. 1666 would prohibit the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing personal information with immigration enforcement agencies.

H.B. 1093 would permit nonresidents living in New Hampshire to obtain a 180-day temporary driver’s license while waiting on their asylum status application. 

The committee doesn’t have a date to vote yet.

In Massachusetts, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

“This is a public safety bill,” said State Rep. Andy Vargas of H.B. 4461. “It’s about making sure we keep all of our communities safe, that we have drivers that are licensed that go through the right process.”

The bill requires individuals provide documentation to obtain a license including proof of their identity, residency in the state and date of birth. The new rules would apply to those who do not have proof they are in the country legally, including those not eligible for a Social Security number.

The House voted 120-36 in favor of the measure on February 16. The bill still requires approval by the Massachusetts Senate, before heading to Governor Baker. 

Undocumented immigrants in 16 other states, including Connecticut and Vermont, are already able to get a driver’s license.


Cover Photo: Ron Lach from Pexels

Publisher’s Note: this story is an aggregate from reports by NHPR and NBC Boston.

Culturally tailored programs boosts colonoscopy rates among Latinos in Providence 

Colon cancer causes about 11 percent of cancer deaths among Hispanic-Latino males and nine percent among Hispanic-Latina females, according to the American Gastroenterological Association.

There are many possible obstacles to colon cancer screening in the Hispanic-Latino population, including language barriers.

Researchers enrolled nearly 700 Spanish-speaking adults in Providence, in a 28-month program that included outreach and guidance by a Spanish-speaking health navigator of Hispanic-Latino origin.

KJZZ reported that 85 percent of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino got colonoscopies, and 90 percent said they wouldn’t have done so without the program.

A recent study in the journal Cancer suggests culturally tailored programs might help raise colonoscopy rates among Hispanic-Latino adults.

Experts find factors like cultural beliefs, language barriers, and limits imposed by work, insurance and transportation are the root cause for the lack of screenings.

Colorectal cancer ranks as the group’s second leading cause of cancer deaths.


Publisher’s Note: this story is an aggregate from Culturally tailored programs can boost colonoscopy rates among Hispanic adults.

Removing language barriers in voting

Publisher’s Note: Please participate in a short survey at the end of the story. Knowing how this story may have influenced you can help guide our future reporting...Thank you!


“People feel excluded in not having the knowledge because of the language barrier,� said Luis Lorenzo, a resident of Bristol, about what he thinks keeps new Americans like himself from participating in the electoral process. Lorenzo is originally from Mexico.

Lorenzo was featured in Voting System Fails Immigrants, as part of the Advancing Democracy: Connecticut Solutions Journalism Initiative that CTLatinoNews.com (CTLN) is undertaking as part of eight reporting projects in 10 newsrooms across the United States. The six-month program is sponsored by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN); its mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting on responses to social problems.

CTLN is exploring solutions to these problems by engaging with thought leaders in Connecticut and drawing from the best practices and lessons learned in communities across the country.

“Now, with me becoming a citizen, it gave me the opportunity to contribute, to have a voice – not only for me but other people”, said Luis Lorenzo, Bristol.
WATCH the Interview.

“Inability to speak or read English cannot be a barrier to the most cherished right of a U.S. citizen, the right to vote,â€� said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, in an interview with NBC. Vargas cited the example of Puerto Ricans, the majority of Hispanics-Latinos in Connecticut, who are not required to read or write English if they live in Puerto Rico.

A Puerto Rican who moves to the U.S. mainland and is not proficient in English “is a fully franchised U.S. citizen and must have free and complete access to the ballot,” said Vargas, regardless of language proficiency.

As a way to make voting more accessible, the U.S. Census Bureau notified 10 Connecticut towns and cities last December that they had to provide language assistance for eligible Hispanic-Latino voters whose English skills were deemed inadequate to participate in the electoral process.

This federal mandate emanated from Section 203 of the 1975 revision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is based on American Community Survey figures. The criteria are a minority language group comprising at least 5 percent or 10,000 members of the eligible voter population.

For 2021, the Census Bureau designated 331 jurisdictions across the United States that must provide bilingual voting assistance compared to 263 in 2016. This list ranges from entire states, such as Florida and California, with large Hispanic and Asian populations, to central Alaskan villages where Yup’ik is a prevalent language.

Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, All Voting is Local’s Florida campaign manager says new language accessibility determinations under Section 203 are hindered by U.S. laws that do not fully remove language barriers in elections. “These disparities in language provisions ultimately have a discriminatory effect on our multiracial democracy, leaving out entire swaths of people,” Negron-Almodovar said. He believes over a million Floridians find themselves at a disadvantage when voting because English isn’t their primary language.

In many cases, compliance has been an ongoing process spanning more than one five-year consent periods. In Connecticut, the Section 203 towns include nine designated in 2016: Bridgeport, East Hartford. Hartford, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Waterbury, and Windham. Norwalk was added this time.

Section 203 serves as a double-edged tool in removing the language speed bump inhibiting and complicating Hispanic-Latino voter turnout.

Whether Section 203 compliance can positively increase the number of Hispanics-Latinos going to the polls, Teresa Begnal, Waterbury’s Democratic Register, says “absolutely.” And without these structures, she said, “there would definitely be more confusion.

A primary reason that Congress included minority language provisions in the Voting Rights Act was an awareness that many members of these groups had been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, whose constituency includes Hartford and East Hartford, sees the provision’s call to action as integral to the current debate about voting rights. He noted these mandates are strengthened in the John R. Lewis Voting Act, which is currently stalled in the Senate.

“We must do everything we can to make voting as accessible as possible,” Larson said. He also suggests that if anyone has any concerns, they should report them to their local election board and the Secretary of the State.

Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center on language barriers immigrant voters face

“There are many Hispanic immigrants, including those who are U.S. citizens, who aren’t necessarily comfortable in their English speaking abilities,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center, in a recent interview with CTLN. “Spanish (information) might help those folks.”

More than 23 million U.S. immigrants were eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, making up roughly 10 percent of the nation’s overall electorate – both record highs, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on Census Bureau data.

Fifteen percent of Connecticut residents are born in another country, according to the American Immigration Council.

The Census Bureau uses the American Community Survey to determine every five years who is covered rather than every ten years as was the standard in the past. Compliance is required if more than five percent or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens are limited-English proficient.

In Connecticut, the affected jurisdictions include the state’s eight largest cities, the home of many eligible HispanicLatino voters whose English skills are insufficient reside. Citizens whose primary language is Spanish comprise the population requiring assistance in all ten of the affected jurisdictions. However, five years ago, a Native American cluster in Kent was covered.

Nearby Massachusetts had the most communities added to the list, increasing from 12 to 19.

Spanish also is the language of most of the citizens of the three states and many of the 300 towns and counties requiring compliance. Still, Section 203 also applies to Asians, American Indians, and Alaska Native voting-age citizens.

The five percent criteria can represent a low hurdle in cities such as Hartford and Bridgeport. In the latter, one-third of the households are categorized as having Spanish as the primary language.

The U.S. Department of Justice monitors elections as needed to determine whether programs required under the Voting Rights Act are being implemented, although ultimately, local election officials ensure their jurisdiction complies.

In Dallas, where nearly 21,000 citizens of voting age speak Vietnamese, some 400 locations will be outfitted with cell phones that voters can use to access translators in the March primary.

Philadelphia, where more than 24 percent of the city’s citizens are speakers of a non-English language, Spanish being the most common – use voting machines, touted for their ability to accommodate at least 12 languages.

Both good ideas say supporters of grassroots organizations demanding the state make the voting process more accessible to naturalized citizens in Connecticut; the challenge is the financial means in realizing them.

The Connecticut Office of the Secretary of State in meeting federal law requirements will supply the translated materials to the Section 203 towns.

Language assistance includes the bilingual signs posted at a polling place, said Begnal. What a town is required to do can be extensive. For example, New Britain plans to do the following activities according to Rachel Zaniewski, public affairs specialist, Office of Mayor Erin E. Stewart:

1. Individuals choosing to register to vote can register using a registration form in Spanish

2. Voters choosing to vote can cast a ballot that is bilingual.

3. All election materials are printed in both Spanish and English. That includes not only the ballot but instructional posters that not only instruct voters on how to vote but also speak to their rights.

4. All legal notices of elections and polling locations are in English and Spanish.

5. Spanish-speaking poll workers and moderators are hired to help with elections.

In Waterbury, all letters and other written materials are in English and Spanish, and there is someone bilingual at each polling local, Begnal said. She has reached out to the local Spanish Coalition for help at the polls. Or, on occasion at the office, the English-speaking official has gone across the hall to a Spanish program for a translator.

Whether or not assistance in Spanish language will increase the number of Hispanic-Latino voters at the polls at this year’s midterm election and in the 2024 presidential election is yet to be seen, but new voters like Lorenzo are optimistic.

“Now, with me becoming a citizen, it gave me the opportunity to contribute, to have a voice – not only for me but other people,” said Lorenzo.

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Cover Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Removing Language Barriers In Voting is supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN).

Latino entrepreneurs, often shunned by banks, band together to build their businesses

With the dramatic growth in the U.S. population, the number of Hispanic-Latino-owned businesses is growing faster than in other ethnic groups.

Carl Palme is a high-tech entrepreneur in Boston with a problem: He’s finding it hard to find investors to back his start-up.

And part of the reason, he says, is his ethnicity.

“I’m a Mexican immigrant,� he told GBH News on a recent morning in his Fort Point office, which is also his production facility. “I don’t have any high school buddies here. I don’t have any kids that I went to primary school [with]. You know, I don’t know their parents; I don’t have these networks where people can just trust me.�

In a December study, the consulting firm McKinsey found that â€œLatinos have the lowest rate of using bank and financial institution loans to start their businesses compared with other racial and ethnic groups,â€� rely more on personal funds and receive a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars invested each year by venture capital firms.

Massachusetts’ climate for Latino businesses is even worse than other states. GBH News reported last year that Black and Latino people now make up more than a fifth of the state’s population but own just over 3% of businesses with employees — less than half the national rate of Black and Latino business ownership.

Learn more about Palme’s story and why Latino businesses face higher demands for collateral from lenders and are turned down for loans more often than their white counterparts by reading Paul Singer’s story: https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2022/02/14/latino-entrepreneurs-often-shunned-by-banks-band-together-to-build-their-businesses.


Latino artists leave messages of activism through streets of Chicago

Art is more human than even science. It has been a constant form of expression since before written language appeared. The first sample of writing was created about 5,500 years ago, while the first cave painting was created 40,000 years ago.

Art is part of humanity. It is a seed that as humans we plant so that in the future we can see its fruits. As the popular phrase goes, “they wanted to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds.”

So it makes perfect sense that we continue to use art to see the change in the world around us. It is an excellent tool to communicate beyond what other mediums allow us to.

Activism and art have been excellent allies throughout history — from music that protests against discrimination to paintings that reflect the horrors of war that powerful leaders have tried to make invisible.

William Guerrero AKA “The Kid From Pilsen”

William Guerrero also known as “The Kid From Pilsen”, a local artist, activist, and photographer in the predominantly Mexican neighborhood describes art to be a reflection of the present. But also a form to connect with the community.

For him, art is the way to give your point of view, share your story, and encourage others to do it while they can. It is clear to him that one of the characteristics that make art an inclusive medium is that “anyone can do it.”

Chris Cervantes, a digital artist from the South Side, believes that “digital art democratizes participation.”

Cervantes started with digital art because he wanted to create, but he didn’t necessarily have a canvas or paint resources to start.

He emphasizes the importance of creating a narrative within the art. “Be part of the conversation,” Cervantes said. 

In the face of the message you want to give, he advises you to “say it loudly and honestly”. His message through art is to not worry too much about being correct, but instead, continue to create and participate.

So then, art and activism are very similar, right? The act of doing and acting is what contains the greatest value. 

That’s how Frillz, a muralist and illustrator, also thinks about it. 

As a child, Frillz would ride his bike through the streets of Logan Square, see the art on the streets, and think: “I could do it too.â€� 

“I want my art to inspire others to create as well,” Frillz said.

That’s another factor that art and activism have in common: They’re contagious. “Art is a great way of communicating messagesâ€� and for this reason “the possibilities are endless,â€� Frillz added.

YCA Gallery exhibition, Frillz Chicago

Milton Coronado, renowned muralist and activist, comments that art can serve as a “call to action” for a community. 

Coronado is a muralist and a public speaker. Through his art, his goal is to embody hope. 

For Coronado, his murals have a “strong connection to Latin American culture.” His paintings range from Vincente Fernandez to Vanessa Guillen.

His messages place special emphasis on seeking conflict resolution without using violence. His art, for him, helps him to “share his experience”, “to send a message to demand change” and to create “opportunities for dialogue” between groups with different positions and perspectives. 

Coronado said he desires his art will serve as a long-term plan for change, seeking to “influence future generations.” In all honesty, I think it is being achieved.

Adam Toledo mural, Milton Coronado

My central question from the beginning of this piece was “is art a good medium for activism?� and it is clear that it is one of the best.

Not only because of its accessibility but also because of its ability to send messages that tend to be sometimes even more powerful than words. 

The roles of murals, photos, illustrations, digital art, and many other types of art have the power to promote change. This is the interpretation that I give to Emma Goldman’s famous phrase “If I can’t dance, your revolution doesn’t interest meâ€�: The revolution can be successful or unsuccessful, but it is art and culture that keep the fight alive.


Cover Photo: Artist Milton Coronado commemorated Marlen Ochoa Lopez, a young mother murdered in Chicago, with a mural in Pilsen. Credit: Milton Coronado.

Publisher’s Notes: You can read Santiago’s Spanish language version of Latino artists leave messages of activism through streets of Chicago by clicking on Artistas latinos dejan la marca de su activismo en Chicago.

Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and La DePaulia are partners in best serving the Hispanic-Latino community.

The post Latino artists leave messages of activism through streets of Chicago appeared first on ILLN.

“Diversity is good, and Rhode Island proves it”

“My vision is of a Rhode Island that rose its economy in a way that is more equitable and just because more people are engaged in making our state better,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea. Gorbea spoke about what she hopes to accomplish as governor as she has as Secretary of State on the Latino News Network podcast, “3 Questions With…”.

Secretary Gorbea is the first Latina to run for governor in New England. If she wins, she would also be the first Puerto Rican governor on the mainland. Gorbea is no stranger to making history in public office. In 2015, she was sworn in as Secretary of State, becoming the first Hispanic-Latina to hold statewide office in New England – a position she was re-elected to in 2018.

“We made government work for people,” said Gorbea in describing the work she is most proud of during her tenure as Secretary of State. The list includes:

  • New voting machines and electronic poll books
  • Re-building the state’s election management database
  • Upgrading election cybersecurity

She also led bills to improve the state’s lobbying system and created automated voter registration.

Rhode Island is home to 180,000+ Hispanics-Latinos, making up approximately 18-percent of the state’s total population.

Gorbea was born and raised in Puerto Rico; moved to Rhode Island in the mid-1990’s. She says that her ethnicity is a piece of the state’s immigrant history, and that it has shaped her approach to leadership.

Secretary Gorbea was also part of a group of Latino activists who began developing the community’s political power, through the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund.

“Having a diversity of opinions, perspectives, and backgrounds around the policy making table makes all the difference in the solutions that we implement, and how long lasting and how good they are,” Gorbea said. “Diversity is good, and Rhode Island proves it.”


Publisher’s Note: This story is written in part from an interview in Rhode Island Monthly.

Language Barriers Overwhelm Children of Immigrants

Iliana Barreto, Coordinator at Centro Latino in Manchester knows firsthand what it’s like for people who are not native English language speakers to be shamed. “Some feel a sense of embarrassment and some people are made to feel less than. You can get frustrated,â€� Barreto said in a recent episode of NHPR’s Visibles.

Barreto originally moved to Boston from Puerto Rico with her family and was the first to learn English. She grew up translating and interpreting for her parents. It’s a reality many children of immigrants in the U.S. live through.

The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for immigrants and refugees in New Hampshire seeking assistance to manage their health. Many rely on their children to navigate what can often be a frustrating process in getting information by phone or websites.

However well-intentioned, children who have to translate for their non-English speaking parents often face mental health struggles, according to a recent study. Children in these situations can typically feel like the roles are reversed. Kids are placed in a parenting role and have to make sure to “careâ€� for their parents. To ensure that they have what they need and that they can get by in a society where they don’t speak the language.

The same language barrier exists in telemedicine; a convenient and safer way to treat patients during COVID-19.

State Representative Manny Espitia (D) from Nashua, is one of the sponsors of H.B. 1390, a bill that would address language translation services in telemedicine.

Espitia told the Concord Monitor that coming from a Hispanic-Latino family where he had to serve as a translator for his parents when he was a kid, he knows the burden of not having an official interpreter.

“We want to make sure that every medical professional has access to translation service so that a patient can get the right information,� he said.

French is the leading foreign language, after

Spanish is the second most popular language spoken in New Hampshire, after English. 2.1 percent of state residents speak Spanish.

Swingers: The Latino Vote

The number of Hispanic-Latino elected officials has grown nearly 75 percent over the past two decades, but Hispanic-Latino politicians still comprise less than 2 percent of all elected officials in the country, according to an analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO).

The Hill reported that the new analysis found that there were 7,087 Hispanic-Latino elected officials as of 2021 out of more than 500,000 elected positions nationwide.

That means around 1.5 percent of all elected officials are Hispanic, compared to 18.5 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.

There has been plenty of debate over Hispanic-Latino voters shifting to the right in the 2020 general election. The general consensus is that 3 in 5 (or slightly more) Hispanics-Latinos voted for President Biden over then-President Donald Trump. Still, there’s no denying Trump made gains among Hispanic-Latinos — and in some places, quite sizable ones, as reported by FiveThirtyEight.

Going forward, such swings among Latinos — the largest ethnic or racial minority group in the country — could affect each party’s chance of carrying important states while also putting Democratic-leaning turf in play for the GOP.

“This current administration has yet to deliver for the (Hispanic-Latino) community,” said Julio Ricardo Varela, interim co-executive director of Futuro Media Group, co-host of the “In The Thickâ€� podcast, and founder of Latino Rebels. Varela discussed on Under the Radar with Callie Crossley how Democrats’ voter bungling could really haunt them in this year’s midterm elections. He believes not enough has been done to help Hispanics-Latinos, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, as well as immigration reform. “It is an issue of the heart.”

“There is a tendency for Democrats to take the Latino vote for granted and assume that because the Latino population is growing then they will permanently gain more and more control,” said Tibisay Zea, senior reporter at El Planeta in Boston. Zea was also a guest on the WGBH News program. She says Hispanics-Latinos tend to act like a swing state.

Hispanics-Latinos are pretty swingy compared with other voting blocs, reports FiveThirtyEight as they’re just not that attached to the two major parties. In Gallup’s 2021 polling, 52 percent of Hispanic Americans identified as independent, which was 10 percentage points higher than the population as a whole (42 percent). And while studies show that voters leaning toward a party do tend to back that party, they are still more likely to vote for the other side than voters who strongly identify with a party.

About one-third of Hispanic-Latinos wasn’t born in the U.S., which means many haven’t developed a strong allegiance to either party. As a result, many first-generation Hispanics-Latinos haven’t instilled loyalty to either party in their children, which is often how younger voters in the U.S. form their partisan identities.

“I don’t think either party is doing enough, number one,” Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO. “One of the things that we did see the Republican Party do over the past several years is trying to grow the number of Latino Republicans running for nonpartisan offices.”

“That is a smart strategy,” said Vargas who believes the political party that builds a bench of candidates to run for higher office – is the one who ultimately will be successful.

Healing into 2022

I remember back in 2020, as the year was about to end, I professed my belief in 2021 being a better year. Unfortunately, 2021 brought a lot more suffering in many ways. We saw and felt the effects of inequitable health disparities, social unrest, and increased mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. 2021 events really highlighted the need for increased access to mental health awareness and wellness-based resources, particularly for Latinx communities. 

We who identify as Latinx tend to belong to collectivist societies. We honor family and community, value social interest, and feel empowered from belonging to our family and community. The pandemic, however, took much of that away from us. Family get-togethers, holiday feasts, church events, local social activities, and practically all of our in-person engagements were ended. With that, our ability to connect with our loved ones, peers, and community members were cut off too.

The loneliness from this type of unnatural isolation was overwhelming and unbearable. Being alone and restricted further added to the suffering so many have felt. 

So here we are again. 2021 finally ended, and I again profess my belief that 2022 will, must, has to be better. We need to find ways to reconnect with our society. We need to see each other’s faces and smiles and feel each other’s warmth and compassion. 

The winter season is still a lonely and anxiety-inducing time for many. When I work with clients struggling during this time of year, we often create a plan that includes finding ways to connect with other human beings. Belonging to, maintaining, and cultivating healthy relationships are, in fact, one of the best ways to heal wounds and improve mood. 

I encourage everyone to add a volunteer and/or social activity over the winter season. Many organizations are looking for these services. Local places of worship, shelters, and other organizations are always looking for volunteers (https://www.chicagocares.org/s/find-an-opportunity). In addition, in-person and virtual opportunities are all over Chicago and the surrounding suburbs (https://www.handsonsuburbanchicago.org/virtual).  

When we connect with others and support our loved ones and community, we will start to remember that better days are coming. 2022 can be better with the choices we make. I look forward to 2022 with all of you as we support each other to heal collectively.  


Cover Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Pamela Fullerton is a bilingual and bicultural Latina Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.

She runs Advocacy & Education Consulting, a professional counseling and consulting organization dedicated to ensuring social justice and advocacy through equitable access to mental health and educational-based services and supports.

Pamela specializes in trauma, immigration and acculturation, BIPOC experiences, career counseling, and life transitions.

Publisher’s Note: Healing into 2022 was first published in Reflejos.

If you have an idea for an Opinion-Editorial; contact us at Info@LatinoNewsNetwork.com.

The post Healing into 2022 appeared first on ILLN.

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.