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Together, Holyoke Family Battles Childhood Obesity05:48
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A new law requires certain state agencies to develop guidelines to fight childhood obesity. Holyoke, one of the state's poorest cities, has become a leader in the fight with public health initiatives to teach families how to eat. WFCR's Karen Brown visited one of the families trying to make healthy changes.

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Kihuanna Espada keeps a photograph of herself on the mirror above her dresser. In it, she’s sitting on a kitchen counter, cross-legged, showing off her newly painted toenails. But these days, what matters to her is how thin she was in the photo. It was taken three years ago, when she was six years old — and about 60 pounds lighter.

"Every time people see it, they say, 'You should get better. Like, you should get the same way you were, not just keep gaining weight,' " Kihuanna says. "And I say, 'You're right, I should.' "

Kihuanna lives in a small Holyoke apartment with her sister, brother-in-law, aunt and mother — a native of Puerto Rico. When Kihuanna was about 7, she started putting on weight faster than her height warranted. With a body mass index of 40 — twice the normal range — Kihuanna is among the 20 percent of American children considered obese.

"When they told me I was overweight, I said, 'I have to lose weight. I have to,' " she says.

This spring, at the suggestion of Kihuanna's primary care doctor, her mother, Kee-Umari Rodriguez, signed her up for Holyoke Health Center’s Healthy Weight Program. At first, Kihuanna was terrified.

"I thought they were gonna do surgery," she says, "like open my belly and look through it." Instead, they just talked to her about her health.

"I just want her to just move on with herself and lose weight and be happy."

Gwendolyn, Kihuanna's sister

Before entering the program, Kihuanna would come home after school and spend about six hours alone in front of the television. She loved soda, candy, white rice and midnight snacks. But in the six weeks since her first visit with a nutritionist and weight doctor, household habits have changed dramatically. Kihuanna’s cousin, Paloma Sanchez, can attest after going through the fridge one day.

"Fruit, orange juice, 100 percent, 2 percent milk, fat free cheese," Sanchez lists.

Kihuanna's mother has also been learning to cook traditional Puerto Rican food — in a healthier way.

"The meat, it's not fried," Rodriguez says in Spanish. She cooks many more vegetables than she used to, and she even eats more of them herself. Kihuanna loves Puerto Rican orange rice, so she asked her mother to start mixing it with lettuce.

"And I told my mom to put a lot of the salad so I can eat it," Kihuanna says. "And it helped me lose weight, because I just get a little bit of rice."

Kihuanna’s 18-year-old sister, Gwendolyn — who’s tall and curvy, but not overweight — has tweaked her own habits to support Kihuanna.

"I eat less junk food in front of her, or I'll try not to eat in front of her," Gwendolyn says, "so she doesn't feel she wants some, too."

"I tell her just to keep it in her room, so I don't see it," Kihuanna says. "And like, my mom's not buying no more soda. And it's hard for me, cause I love soda."

Getting off the couch and moving is something else Kihuanna had to learn. Her mother works as a caretaker for a disabled relative and doesn't have time to organize activities for her daughter, so, at the doctor’s suggestion, she signed Kihuanna up for a free after-school program called Girls Inc.

And though Kihuanna still watches some TV when she comes home, she's making a strong effort to follow her doctor’s orders to ride her bike for at least a half hour, five days a week. It's not always easy. Her bike has been stolen twice and her new one — built by her brother-in-law — is a bit small for her. There's no bike path nearby, so she rides up and down the sidewalk outside her apartment.

"I usually come up and ask my mom, 'How many minutes I've been out?' " she says. "And she tells me sometimes 10, 15, and I just keep going til I get, like, a little more."

Her mother even makes her stay out if it's raining, but Kihuanna says what started out as a chore is getting to be fun. She found a friend to bike with and sometimes they stay out for a couple of hours.

"I can go really fast," she says from the bike. "And I can stand up on it."

Kihuanna’s family is relieved that she's taken to these lifestyle changes.

"She has a lot of motivation, she's motivated now," Rodriguez says in Spanish. She says Kihuanna has already lost four pounds and that keeps her going.

"She's getting skinnier, she's eating less," Gwendolyn says. For that, she’s proud of her sister. "Real proud. I just want her to just move on with herself and lose weight and be happy."

It's hard to gauge Kihuanna's statistical chances of slimming down, as pediatric obesity programs are new and not widely studied. Kihuanna herself is confident she can stick with these good habits.

"I have seen a lot of other people, if they were overweight, and they get diabetes and stuff," she says. "And they get sick. So I don’t want to be like that. And I don’t feel scared, because I know I’m gonna do it."

She still craves junk food, and sometimes she just wants to veg in front of Nickelodeon. But then she looks at that photo of her thin, six-year-old self — and heads back outside.

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This program aired on August 9, 2010.

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