Featured: Phyllis Whittaker of McAllen, who has volunteered for the past 15 years to lead a popular exercise program for fellow retired Valley residents at the Lark Community Center in McAllen. Photograph by MARY VILLARREAL
Phyllis Whittaker praised by grateful Valley residents for her 15 years of volunteer service in leading vital exercise program for fellow retirees
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Baby Boomers, who are the estimated 76 million people born in the United States between 1946 and 1964, have definitely changed the nation and the world for the better, from the civil rights movement to the mobile digital device, which literally provides access to all the world’s knowledge in the palm of a hand.
But as more Boomers are retiring, many continue influencing society in other vital ways, such as by keeping in shape, staying healthy, keeping fit, or regaining good form, both physically and mentally.
That’s where Phyllis Whittaker, a volunteer fitness instructor with the Lark Community Center, has made her presence felt by leading a popular exercise program at that facility, which hosts education, social and recreational activities designed for Baby Boomers.
“I never gave it any thought, it just happened. It evolved,” the longtime Valley resident, who grew up in Earlville, Illinois, recalled of her decision a decade-and-a-half ago to become a volunteer fitness instructor. “I hope I can do it for another 15 years.”
Mary Villarreal, an area community and business leader, and a former City Secretary for Edinburg is one of the many grateful beneficiaries of Whittaker’s volunteerism.
“Fifteen years of volunteer service is remarkable and admirable by any standard, and Phyllis is certainly deserving of honorable recognition and praise,” said Villarreal. “That is why many of us who participate in her fitness programs are calling attention to her public service.”
As a former City Secretary in Edinburg, Villarreal understands the importance of deserving individuals receiving public recognition for their achievements or milestones.
In her capacity as City Secretary, Villarreal would prepare city proclamations, which were approved by the mayor and city councilmembers, to honor Edinburg residents.
“It was only natural that Phyllis’ students wanted to give her the credit she deserves,” said Villarreal. “I enjoy seeing people getting recognized for the things they do.”
Villarreal said she would be contacting Whittaker’s elected representatives – Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, McAllen City Commissioner J.J. Zamora, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – asking them for similar proclamations or correspondence honoring Whittaker.
Whittaker, a retired science educator with a Master’s Degree in Library Science from Texas Women’s University in Denton, says she gains as many, if not more, blessings from leading the morning sessions, which focus on age-appropriate exercises involving stretching, walking aerobics, and weight lifting.
“Besides my cats getting me up in the morning, this is good for me. I enjoy the physical activities, but the social connection is important, too,” she said. “People who exercise at home only receive half of the benefits. Here, we become friends, do things together.”
A graduate of Pan American University with a Bachelor’s Degree in the sciences (biology/chemistry, physics), Whittaker decades later signed up for the free exercise sessions at Lark Community Center.
A classroom educator by profession, she taught thousands of McAllen students in middle school and in high school over the span of her professional life. As she moved into her retirement, she became a student at the same fitness program she now leads.
“Our fitness instructor was married and became pregnant, so she had to resign to focus on her family,” Whittaker said. “By then, I had learned quite a bit from her, so I volunteered (for no pay) to take her place.”
Whittaker said she did not have any professional training in physical education, “but I still had the experience to teach a class.”
As time went on, at least 500 people from throughout the region have participated in the fitness program taught by her. There is no charge for anyone to attend any of the exercise sessions.
“I did it because it was needed, and I just pretty much did what our former fitness instructor had developed for us,” she said.
Whittaker’s loyal fitness program participants draw strength from her and her classes in more ways than one.
“We are appreciative of Phyllis, who reassures us that we can have an exercise program that benefits us but doesn’t involve pain or discomfort,” Villarreal said. “Her dedication to her fitness students here at Lark Community Center is such that she even led our classes while she was under medical care for a neck problem. She demonstrates her love for her community and speaking on behalf of everyone who has been involved in her classes, the feeling is mutual.”
Whittaker takes it all in stride, saying she doesn’t volunteer with the intent of generating positive press.
“It is just as good for me,” Whittaker reflects on her volunteer services. “It keeps me healthy and going.”
Whittaker was humbled by the attention but quickly noted there are many other volunteers, either as individuals or as members of a group, who share their skills, talents and time as she does.
For example, there are more than 100 volunteers for different programs at the Lark Community Center, which is located at 2601 Lark Avenue.
There are two other such facilities also operated by the City of McAllen: Las Palmas Community Center at 1921 N. 25th and Palmview Community Center at 3401 Jordan Road.
“The City of McAllen is looking for volunteers who would like to share their time and talent with our staff and residents of our growing community,” according to the McAllen’s city website. “Our city welcomes volunteers and their involvement in many areas and capacities that may provide short term work experience or long term work knowledge.”
As a volunteer one may gain more than work experience, one can fulfill the quench for knowledge as well as learning new experiences, the city website further states.
The City of McAllen has many different areas you may volunteer in. For further information please feel free to contact the City of McAllen Volunteer Coordinator at (956) 681-1045.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency, provides the following key information about the benefits of regular physical activity, particularly for older individuals:
• Older adults, both male and female, can benefit from regular physical activity.
• Physical activity need not be strenuous to achieve health benefits.
• Older adults can obtain significant health benefits with a moderate amount of physical activity, preferably daily. A moderate amount of activity can be obtained in longer sessions of moderately intense activities (such as walking) or in shorter sessions of more vigorous activities (such as fast walking or stair walking).
• Additional health benefits can be gained through greater amounts of physical activity, either by increasing the duration, intensity, or frequency. Because the risk of injury increases at high levels of physical activity, care should be taken not to engage in excessive amounts of activity.
• Previously sedentary older adults who begin physical activity programs should start with short intervals of moderate physical activity (5-10 minutes) and gradually build-up to the desired amount.
• Older adults should consult with a physician before beginning a new physical activity program. In addition to cardiorespiratory endurance (aerobic) activity, older adults can benefit from muscle-strengthening activities. Stronger muscles help reduce the risk of falling and improve the ability to perform the routine tasks of daily life.
• The loss of strength and stamina attributed to aging is in part caused by reduced physical activity.
• Inactivity increases with age. By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity.
• Among adults aged 65 years and older, walking and gardening or yard work is, by far, the most popular physical activities.
• Social support from family and friends has been consistently and positively related to regular physical activity.
Benefits of Physical Activity
• It helps maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones.
• Reduces the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes.
• It can help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension.
• Helps people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength.
• Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being.
• It helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
• It helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.
What Communities Can Do
• Provide community-based physical activity programs that offer aerobic, strengthening, and flexibility components specifically designed for older adults.
• Encourage malls and other indoor or protected locations to provide safe places for walking in any weather.
• Ensure that facilities for physical activity accommodate and encourage participation by older adults.
Provide transportation for older adults to parks or facilities that provide physical activity programs.
• Encourage health care providers to talk routinely to their older adult patients about incorporating physical activity into their lives.
• Plan community activities that include opportunities for older adults to be physically active.
TEXAS HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES COMMISSION UNVEILS BLUEPRINT FOR A HEALTHY TEXAS
Texas Health and Human Services on Wednesday, October 16, 2019, unveiled its inaugural business plan, Blueprint for a Healthy Texas, which spells out specific, measurable initiatives to improve the lives of the millions of Texans who rely on HHS services.
“This plan reflects our deep commitment to greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability to the people we serve and other vital stakeholders,” said Texas HHS Executive Commissioner Dr. Courtney N. Phillips. “Whether it is increasing the number of women accessing prenatal care, making childcare safer or reducing call wait times to access services, this plan details our efforts to continually improve, as well as the concrete measures we will use to hold ourselves accountable along the way.”
As a guide for long-term improvement, the 12 initiatives and 72 goals outlined in the plan focus on how the system’s two agencies — the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of State Health Services — will improve operations, customer service, and workplace culture.
Among the initiatives, HHS is working to improve health outcomes for women, mothers, and children by enhancing access to long-acting reversible contraception, increasing prenatal and well-child visits, and addressing disparities in breastfeeding and breast cancer.
“Every woman needs access to preventive care and family planning services, including contraception, which is why improving access to long-acting reversible contraception is such an important goal,” said Evelyn Delgado, President and Executive Director of Healthy Futures of Texas. “HHS’ specific goals toward improving health care for Texas women and children is a positive step, and we look forward to working together to achieve results.”
FY 2020 initiatives also address behavioral health; regulatory health and safety; Medicaid managed care; services and supports; advocacy for people in long-term care; supplemental and directed payment programs; HHS workplace culture and recruitment, procurement and contracting; quality control; and technology and innovation.
HHS is committed to connecting people to the services and supports they need. One of the goals in this initiative is to develop and implement a pilot program, Texas Works Path to Success, to reduce the impact of situational and generational poverty and address barriers that prevent Texans from being self-sufficient.
In partnership with Goodwill Industries of Houston and the United States Department of Agriculture, the pilot will help high school seniors and able-bodied adults in an impoverished area of Harris County increase economic self-reliance.
“Goodwill Houston is excited to work with HHS to design and launch the innovative Texas Works Path to Success Program to create career pathway opportunities that truly break the cycle of generational poverty,” said Alma Duldulao-Ybarra, Vice President of Workforce Development at Goodwill Houston.
Another initiative focuses on improving the accountability and sustainability of supplemental and directed payment programs to achieve positive outcomes. Each fiscal year, HHS oversees billions of Medicaid dollars distributed to providers through these programs. As the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment funding is phased out in late 2021, our goal is to continue to work with partners to develop new programs, policies, and strategies to build on DSRIP successes and improve the delivery of health care services.
“This plan helps pave the way for greater transparency and measurable improvements across Texas HHS,” said Ted Shaw, President, and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association. “Prioritizing supplemental payment programs that help hospitals provide essential services for people in Texas is critically important. We look forward to collaborating to sustain and improve these programs.”
Blueprint for a Healthy Texas is more than a framework that prioritizes and guides HHS work throughout the next fiscal year. Rather, it sets forth strategies for how agency divisions will accomplish each initiative’s respective goals. Next year’s plan will report how HHS measured on all FY 2020 initiatives and will include goals for FY 2021 and beyond.
To read the plan visit hhs.texas.gov/business-plan.
About Texas HHS
Texas Health and Human Services, which includes the Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of State Health Services, employs more than 41,000 team members, operates a $78.5 billion biennial budget and manages more than 220 programs ranging from health care, food benefits, cash assistance, state inpatient psychiatric hospitals, regulation of childcare, nursing and health care facilities, public health tracking and data collection, vital records, food safety and newborn screening.
Christine Mann contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).