Harlingen vies for All-America City Award

HARLINGEN — Five years ago, Harlingen became one of Texas’ few cities to launch a Mayor’s Wellness Council.

Soon, Healthy Harlingen was born to combat one of the state’s highest rates of diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

Now, community leaders are vying to return the National Civic League’s All-America City Award to City Hall by showcasing the growing series of programs and activities aimed at helping residents live healthier lifestyles.

“It’s worthy of entering the competition and showing off what Harlingen has done,” Mayor Chris Boswell said after city commissioners agreed to enter the national contest last week.

“The idea that local government can work with business and health care to promote healthy lifestyles and create more awareness is very important to our mission,” Boswell said.

In 1992, the city won its first All-America City Award, which recognized the community’s spirit of volunteerism.

This year, the contest’s theme, “Enhancing health and well-being through civic engagement,” mirrors Harlingen’s commitment to help residents live healthy lives.

“The 2020 All-America City Award is focused on celebrating examples of civic engagement practices that advance health and well-being in local communities,” the Civic League states on its website.

“We are looking for projects that demonstrate inclusive decision-making processes to enhance health and well-being for all and particularly for populations currently experiencing poorer health outcomes.”

For Harlingen, the award would recognize a venerated community campaign.

“It’s obviously recognition of our citizens, our community and what we do,” Joel Garza, the special projects director spearheading the city’s application, said. “It’s something to put Harlingen on the map.”

High-risk population

In Harlingen, 80 percent of residents are obese or over-weight, conditions that lead to diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, the city’s website states.

“Because it’s a chronic disease, it is very difficult to address. The factors are more than genetics. Behaviors are highly important,” said Dr. Belinda Reininger, a Harlingen school board member who serves as the regional dean at UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville. “A lot of it is about what choices we make in what we eat and whether we smoke or not.”

For years, Reininger has helped promote the city’s health and wellness programs.

“I am a big believer in civic engagement-type activities,” she said. “These types of initiatives are important in addressing chronic disease conditions. It’s tremendous the city has embraced these areas in the last several years.”

Big events

For the coveted Civic League award bestowed upon 10 cities every year, Harlingen is up for the challenge, City Manager Dan Serna said.

“We certainly have done a number of programs in that area,” he said, referring to the contest’s theme.

Serna pointed to sporting events that draw hundreds of participants, such as the Harlingen Marathon, the Junior League’s South Texas Sizzler races and the Jalapeno 100 Bike Ride.

“There are a lot of areas we have been working on which we will be looked at favorably,” he said.

Parks system

Years ago, city leaders laid the foundation to help lead residents to healthier lives.

With more than 500 acres of public park land, Harlingen leads other Rio Grande Valley cities in green spaces from which to field sports teams and draw family outings.

By the mid 1990s, city officials had paved the first stretch of the Arroyo Hike and Bike Trail.

Mayor’s Wellness Council

Then five years ago, community leaders launched the Mayor’s Wellness Council, which became a springboard for a series of programs.

“There’s very few around Texas,” Javier Mendez, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said. “That’s kind of the hub for several of these groups that want to provide health and wellness activities.”

Soon, the Wellness Council spawned Healthy Harlingen.

“It really is a trend that’s beginning to pick up speed in the state and the country,” Sandra Flinn, Healthy Harlingen’s chairwoman, said, referring to the Mayor’s wellness campaign.

Today, Healthy Harlingen continues to work to expand the city’s trail system, now boasting 17.4 miles of winding walkways.

“Many of our parks have trails,” Mendez said. “I think it is a plus, especially if you have off-system trails — off-street so it’s a lot safer to run or walk or ride bikes.”

Now, more parks feature “all-inclusive playgrounds,” designed to allow children, including those with special needs, to play together.

“Our goal was to make a playground fully accessible for everyone, like people in wheelchairs,” Mendez said.

Community partnerships

Widespread community involvement will help Harlingen compete for the national award, Flinn said.

“Having such strong involvement in health and wellness is a benefit for sure,” she said.

Flinn cited the city’s partnership with the Harlingen school district.

“Our community is so closely knit it’s almost a seamless connection,” she said.

In recent years, she said, the community has pulled together to help the city win the competition “It’s time Texas Community Challenge.”

“It’s a great community motivator,” she said.

Mendez also pointed to the program Tu Salud Si Cuenta, which features free exercise and nutrition classes.

“We try to teach participants how to eat well and cook healthy,” he said. “The goal is to reduce chronic disease like diabetes and high blood pressure.”

As part of the program, organizers follow up on participants’ health.

“We track participants and monitor them,” Mendez said. “It’s free and they learn to help themselves, giving citizens so many opportunities. With our area being high-risk, we’re trying to combat that. I think we’ll have a good chance of winning the award.”