Gaston built an impressive career in the entertainment industry, but the childhood obesity epidemic inspired her to return to her roots as a health educator. As cofounder and CEO of the new nonprofit program Dance Towards Health (DTH), Gaston is striving to help young people build healthier habits through recreational dance.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
I am actually a third generation health educator. I have a host of relatives including my grandfather, grandmother, and father who had and currently have careers in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) field. Admittedly, it took me awhile to figure out that the time would come for me to contribute to the field as well.
I got inspired to go back to graduate school to study HPER while working in the music industry. Although, I enjoyed the work I was doing (and am still doing), I started to feel compelled to create an opportunity to help children. The idea for DTH was born after learning just how big the epidemic of childhood obesity is. It felt like a call to action. Over time, I realized that I could combine my artistic abilities with my education in health to create a program that provided participants who do not have the capacity or interest in “conventional” exercise with an opportunity to make better health choices. Recreational dance is going to be used to motivate youth to increase their physical activity while also educating them on how to eat healthy on a budget. The program’s official start date is July 2014, so now we are tirelessly working to secure program locations and formally start the organization as a nonprofit in Georgia.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
By giving children a fun outlet that is healthy in disguise. My goal in establishing DTH was to create an outreach program that would be able to reach children in after school programs and recreation centers without the barrier of having to pay for the program. DTH utilizes dance and music, yet it is very much a health education program that is steeped in research and social responsibility; helping children to build sustainable healthy habits is key. The program also has a component that deals with stress management, which correlates with obesity.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
Seeing this program come into fruition. The program was initially created seven years ago and I got discouraged a couple of times along the way trying to establish it on my own. In 2013, three of my sisters and I decided to combine our talents and efforts to get the program off the ground; it is a part of expanding our family’s legacy into the Atlanta area. Child advocacy is a very important component of my life. Since I moved to the Atlanta area in 2009, Easter Seals of North Georgia and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta have been the organizations that I have worked with the most. With Dance Towards Health, I plan to expand my community outreach significantly.
Who is your role model in your work?
Lately I have found myself having a lot of admiration for music artists that have made a commitment to starting or contributing significantly to health causes. Some examples that come to mind are Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D, U2, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé. In the Atlanta area I have worked closely with the dance studio, Gotta Dance Atlanta, and I admire the community outreach work of choreographer, Ursula Kendall Johnson. I also am enjoying seeing the approach that the Partnership for a Healthier America is taking toward health education.
What game or sport did you play growing up?
I have always been an athletic person. During my adolescent years, I was a sprinter on my high school track team and was also a cheerleader. I have been a dancer since a very early age, and have continued dancing throughout my life. My parents made sure that I was constantly involved in positive activities, which is another motivation behind creating the Dance Towards Health program.