Local News

Thursday, Apr 18 2013 06:25 PM

Creating change: Women advocate for park, health improvement

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Walking group members Olga Zuniga and Gema Perez socialize and walk around the park to warm up before the zumba class begins at 9 a.m. Formed in 2006 by two Bakersfield mothers, the Greenfield Walking Group began as an informal group of primarily Spanish-speaking mothers who met for daily walks and aerobic exercise in the city's Stiern Park.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Mariela Jimenez and Mireye Flores participate in a zumba class at Stiern Park on Wednesday morning. Formed in 2006 by two Bakersfield mothers, the Greenfield Walking Group began as an informal group of primarily Spanish-speaking mothers who met for daily walks and aerobic exercise in the city's Stiern Park.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Formed in 2006 by two Bakersfield mothers, the Greenfield Walking Group began as an informal group of primarily Spanish-speaking mothers who met for daily walks and aerobic exercise in the city's Stiern Park. Ofelia Aguirre leads a zumba class on Wednesday morning.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Ofelia Aguirre has been conducting a zumba class for the past two years, five days a week at the park. Formed in 2006 by two Bakersfield mothers, the Greenfield Walking Group began as an informal group of primarily Spanish-speaking mothers who met for daily walks and aerobic exercise in the city's Stiern Park.

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BY LAURA LIERA Californian staff writer lliera@bakersfield.com

Muevan las caderas y a bailar . Move your hips and start dancing.

Dancing has become a daily exercise routine for members of the Greenfield Walking Group, who dance Zumba every morning, Monday through Friday.

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Get moving

Join the Greenfield Walking Group Zumba class from 9 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday at Stiern Park, 5400 Monitor St.

But it hasn't always been about dancing and exercising.

In 2006, they believed Stiern Park on Monitor Street south of Pacheco Road was unsafe and not a place for families to walk and get exercise.

"The park was a place where people sold drugs, where crime happened and where walking past it produced fear," said Gema Perez, founder of Greenfield Walking Group.

Perez and five other women decided they were going to take back the park. They wanted to exercise freely without fear, so they contacted the Bakersfield Police Department.

"We asked them to set time aside to watch over us as we walked around the park because we didn't feel safe," Perez said. "And as more women saw that police were now keeping an eye on us, the group started expanding and we all started walking together in the morning after dropping off our kids."

As the group grew, Perez and other members talked about putting in a new sidewalk around the park so that pushing a baby stroller over a cracked, narrow walkway and dirt path was no longer a challenge.

The walking group organized, inviting police, park officials and other community leaders to walk with them so they could see and understand the extent of the problem.

"When I first went to the park, I couldn't believe it was a park because there were broken alcohol glass bottles and needles on the ground," said Jennifer Lopez, community manager of Kaiser Permanente, who at the time was working with Central California Regional Obesity Program.

Lopez and the group collected data on the problems that existed in the park and sat down with city officials who agreed to work with them to help clean up the park and make it safe for families.

Dianne Hoover, director of Bakersfield Parks and Recreation, said Stiern Park was already on the department's list for improvements but was moved up because of the community group.

"The playground was one of our older playgrounds with a metal slide, and wood railings," Hoover said. "But because the group decided to come together and voice their concern about the park, the improvement was made sooner."

Cindy Pollard, president and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, said the walking group became a part of a Leadership Bakersfield program, which provides assistance to community projects.

"We wanted to be a part of the change because it was just an unsafe park for families," Pollard said. "The playground was unsafe and old."

With the help of community officials and family members of the walking group, Stiern Park was transformed in three years.

The walking group raised $7,000 for park expenses and the community donated time to help rebuild the park.

"It was great to see the entire community come out and plant new bushes and help clean up the park because it shows how important this park was to them," Hoover said.

Although it took some time to build a new sidewalk, remove graffiti and install a new playground, Rosa Lopez, 50, a walking group member, is happy to be part of the change that happened at the park.

"The change is so great and truly noticeable for those of us who started working to fix the park a while back," she said. "Now when I come every day to the park, and I see all my friends ready to exercise and dance, it makes everything worth it."

With a determined look on her face, Mariela Jimenez, 34, follows the Zumba instructor's dance steps to a Pitbull song and makes sure she is putting her full energy into the workout.

Without this dance class, Jimenez might not be alive today.

"I attempted to commit suicide multiple times," she said. "I was going through a tough depression at the time, because I had just moved from Los Angeles to Bakersfield and it was a tough transition."

But now, Jimenez has made friends with the 40 women of the group and has lost weight thanks to the support of her new sisters.

Two years ago, she wore a size 20 in jeans. Now she wears a size 12.

"Every day after the class, I leave feeling brand new and with so much energy and I know it's because I am relaxing as I dance," Jimenez said.

The motivation these women receive every day, to push harder in exercising, is something that Zumba instructor Ofelia Aguirre, 38, sets her mind to every morning.

"I love to dance and dancing not only helps these women lose weight, but it also helps them forget about problems they may be having," she said. "Dancing rejuvenates a person and it's a form of therapy that anyone can really do."

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