Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego’s Center for Healthier Communities (CHC) is home to nearly 20 initiatives that focus on building and maintaining healthy lifestyles from an early age. Through accessible, resource-rich programs that draw upon in-depth child and community health research, the CHC and its partners work to enact positive change all over San Diego, with an emphasis on supporting wellness and development in underserved areas.

One of the CHC’s key pillars is Youth Development, within which a number of programs support career preparation, academic achievement, upward mobility and general well-being for local teens. Alongside familiar offerings such as FACES for the Future and the ever-popular Summer and Weekend Medical Academies is a lesser known, but equally important, program: The Wellness Team at Juvenile Hall.

Overseen by Youth Development Program Manager Shelli Brown, M.A., L.P.C., Wellness Team Coordinators Juan Serrano and Noemi Duenas, along with valued Rady Children’s partners including Jaclyn Gaylis, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian and nutrition coach, teach detained youth in two of San Diego’s detention facilities. Young participants benefit from courses designed to prime them for upholding healthy and productive lives upon returning to the community. “Providing health and wellness education to detained youth allows us to build and enhance their skills in the key areas of physical, emotional and mental health, and also positions the youth to make better lifestyle decisions once out of custody. Our team has a great opportunity to step in and provide much-needed support,” Brown comments.

The team offers a multitude of classes in substance abuse, anger management, career readiness, male and female reproductive health, injury prevention, domestic violence prevention and nutrition. For the latter, Gaylis, the team’s sole nutrition expert, holds regular Nutrition 101 seminars at the Kearny Mesa facility that review the basics of healthy eating, making balanced lifestyle choices and understanding how nutrition influences whole-person wellness.

“I want to make sure I’ve provided enough knowledge and power to encourage them to treat their bodies with care and eat healthy, proper fuel so they can grow into healthy, thriving adults. We want to show that we care about them and their health, as they should as well,” she says. “I focus on covering the five food groups: Protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, fibrous vegetables and fruit. We review portions, sugar-sweetened beverages and how to build a healthy meal based on the updated MyPlate guidelines,” she says. “I also touch on physical activity and other healthy habits such as sleep and hydration … it really depends on what they’re most interested in. I always encourage them to ask any nutrition questions they have.”

For Gaylis, instilling this knowledge in kids at such a pivotal time in their lives goes beyond doing good — it’s personal. “This program is very important to me because I went through my own personal weight loss/health journey when I was 20,” she elaborates. “I naturally lost 60 pounds through healthy eating and small lifestyle changes, and prevented myself from becoming diabetic. Over the course of an entire year, I lost the weight and have kept [it] off since 2011. That is actually what sparked my passion for nutrition and when I decided I wanted to become a registered dietitian. My goal as a dietitian is to prevent others from making the same unhealthy mistakes I made for the first 20 years of my life.”

Gaylis discussing nutrition with youth in Juvenile Hall

While her subject area is only currently available to girls ages 14 to 18 in a specific unit, the team is actively working to extend nutrition offerings to boys. Duenas and Serrano divide the other classes under the team’s purview and reach out to local partners to fill in different areas of expertise. Together, they teach to both boys’ and girls’ units, and all three team members visit youth on holidays if they aren’t in communication with their families, or families are unable to visit.

The Wellness Team at Juvenile Hall provides an invaluable blend of knowledge, openness and compassion that aligns to support healthier kids, healthier futures and a healthier San Diego community. To find out more about their work and additional CHC programs, visit https://www.rchsd.org/programs-services/center-for-healthier-communities/.