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Institute Teaches Kids by Dancing, Digging and Dining


When Roberto Fierro and his wife, Natalie Wagner Fierro, moved from San Diego to Washington, D.C. before the 2012 elections, the couple brought a little bit of the Golden State along with them.

Unfortunately for D.C. denizens, they didn’t bring the sunny weather. But they did re-launch the Institute for Student Health, a nonprofit the couple founded to educate young people and their families about ways to eat healthier and be more active.

The couple originally created the nonprofit in San Diego as a way to serve others as part of their careers, Roberto recalls.

“It was one of those, ‘How do we address what we think are major concerns, not only for our country and the world, but still make a living?” Roberto says. “While I did not believe the world needed another nonprofit, [we thought] there might be a space for us.”

The Institute is primarily focused on education in all of its program work, as both Roberto and Natalie have a teaching background.

After graduating college, Natalie served in Teach for America in Philadelphia while also earning a master’s degree in education, and then headed to San Diego for law school. Although she excelled during the first year, Natalie ultimately decided that the legal world wasn’t for her, and went back to education. Roberto, meanwhile, briefly taught ninth grade before settling on a career in the political realm.

The couple shared a drive to address problems connected to the obesity epidemic, especially among the Latino community, which is disproportionately impacted by obesity. So they launched the Institute in 2011, running educational programs at schools or recreation centers – basically anywhere there was interest.

The pair tailored their programs for specific audiences, trying out new strategies and programs whenever they could. Their biggest successes included helping build a school garden at a San Diego high school and incorporating a “food and fitness” component to several of the area’s summer camps.

In 2012, the duo moved to D.C., where Roberto took a job as a consultant during the 2012 election cycle. They decided to take the lessons learned from their time in San Diego and re-launch the Institute in the nation’s capital, honing in on the areas where they felt they could have the greatest impact.

The Institute received funding in 2013 to launch “Dance, Dig and Dine,” an initiative that combines gardening, healthy eating and ballroom dancing. The first D3 class taught elementary schoolers during a summer program at the city’s Latin American Youth Center, allowing kids to grow their own food, learn how to use it to prepare healthy meals, and get active on the dance floor.

“I grew up playing basketball, football the traditional sports. After you are in the classroom, you realize not all those students are for those sports,” Roberto says. “The students you need to reach are not the ‘jock’ type.”

The Institute received a big boost when the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs awarded the nonprofit $20,000 for its Community Health Initiative programming. Led by Natalie, Institute staff provides healthy lessons to students at three elementary schools several times a week and also offer workshops in the community at least twice a month at local farmers’ markets and libraries.

For example, the Institute might offer cooking demonstrations using ingredients specifically available at the farmers’ market. They also might incorporate a fitness lesson – they’ve done everything from dancing to boot-camp style circuit training.

“Last weekend at the Mount Pleasant library, we taught people how to make salsa, but we also taught them how to dance salsa,” Roberto recalls.

Roberto tells the Inside Track that he hopes the Institute will continue to grow its programming, both in D.C. and other cities across the country. He also wants to directly involve more members of the Latino community in Institute activities, noting that the obesity movement needs more Latino advocates.