So They Can Feel Sure of Themselves: Community Service Learning Impact on Female Walkers

Kathy Bussert-Webb
University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, USA


This qualitative study and descriptive analysis explores the impact of a walking path installed as a community service learning (CSL) project. Findings from participant observations and two survey rounds (one year apart) demonstrate the impact the walking path on the 52 adult Latinas’ well-being, access, and relationships. This study is significant because few people have documented CSL impact on Latino communities or on Latino health, a significant topic because Latinos, the fastest-growing U.S. group, have a disproportionate rate of diabetes-related health problems.


“There no (pointing to the street), because they raped me three years ago. Here I feel safe in this place, and I hope it stays the same and that more people come, so they can feel sure of themselves” (Valiente, walking path user)image

Many have documented the impact of community service learning (CSL) on preservice teachers (Cone, 2009; Cooper, 2007; Donnison & Itter, 2010; Glazier, Charpentier, & Boone, 2011; Mitchell, 2007) and some have described benefits to tutees (Jones, Stallings, & Malone, 2004; Karsenty, 2010). However, few focus on impact to others, even though it documenting community impact is essential to good CLS practice (Garrott, 2009; National Service Learning Clearinghouse, 2007). CSL is any intentional, active, reflective work explicitly related to course outcomes, and which students do to meet community needs (Swick, 2000; Hart, 2006).

This article attempts to answer a specific question: What is the impact of a community walking path created as a CSL project? More broadly, though, this study examines the impact of indirect service learning. In the case under examination, preservice teachers, children they tutored, and others helped to create the path, but had little contact with the adult Latina walkers. This type of CSL constitutes indirect, versus direct, service learning (Kaye, 2004). This article describes how an indirect CSL project helped 52 adult Latinas in strengthening well-being, improving access, and building relationships.

This study describes a project in which mostly Latinos have provided and received services. Latinos are the fastest growing and largest U.S. minority group and are expected to represent 23% of the U.S. population by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b). Furthermore, many Latinos suffer from higher rates of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and vascular-related complications (Caballero, 2005). Mexican Americans, in particular, face higher risks for diabetes and obesity than do the general U.S. population (Fisher-Hoch et al., 2010).

Finally, the neighborhood in which the study took place, referred to as Esperanza here, is a site of significant poverty. Sixty-one percent of residents under age 18 live below the poverty level (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a).

The walking path we created was in response to the area’s high incidence of obesity-related illnesses. The mortality rate from diabetes in Cameron County, where the study took place, was 39.3, versus the 32.2 average state rate (Texas Department of State Health Services, 2006), yet this rate is underrepresented because most death certificates do not list diabetes as a contributing factor and many people with economic challenges have undiagnosed diabetes. This is especially true among people between the ages of 55 to 64 (Fisher-Hoch et al., 2010).

Obesity-related illnesses are associated with inactivity. Mexican Americans have the highest percentage (40%) of age-adjusted physical inactivity during leisure time, compared to Caucasians (18%) (Sharma, 2008; Maceta et al., 2005). From a random-digit dialed survey of 933 Mexican Americans in Texas border towns, Mier et al. (2007) found 52% did not exercise. Thus, to prevent diabetes- and vascular-related problems or to regain one’s health, access to inexpensive, safe, appealing exercise is important (Cohen et al., 2007; Cassetta et al., 2007). This is problematic in low-income areas with no outdoor places to exercise. Brown (2007) argues the structure of many cities, such as a lack of sidewalks and bike paths, predisposes people to inactivity and obesity.

Harrington and Elliot (2009) discovered waist circumference, the most dangerous part of the body for adult-onset type 2 diabetes, was related to neighborhood- level characteristics, independent of individual-level characteristics. Some doctors and researchers blame obesity on individuals, but Ludwig et al. (2011) found some environments actually encourage physical inactivity; moving to a neighborhood with a lower level of poverty relates to a decrease in extreme obesity and diabetes.

According to Thomas (1994), poverty relates to structural deprivation and it affects health behaviors, outcomes, and services, particularly for women. In focus group discussions with 75 Latinas, Ramirez found that limited community resources for physical activity, such as parks, sidewalks, and programs were top barriers to health, as were the costs of programs and gyms (Ramirez et al., 2007). Citing six separate studies, Ramirez et al. discovered residents of unsafe and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are significantly less physically active. Other possible reasons for physical activity among Latinas relate to accessibility, affordability, and caregiving (Mier et al., 2011).

Theoretical Framework

Young’s (1995, 2011) critical social theory of gender and the funds of knowledge theory, coined by Greenberg (1990), guided the research methods of this study. Instead of a distributive model of social justice focused on money, jobs, and power for individuals, I, like Young, was interested in examining domination and oppression and the institutional contexts of inequalities between diverse groups. Thus, I was keen on the relationship between social structural analysis, such as access to parks and sidewalks, and the health of economically disadvantaged women (Thomas, 1994). Vasquez (2002) states: “A shift from a focus on the individual to a focus on environmental effects of the individual … is a subtle but significant shift” (p. 25). Also, Sharma (2008) criticized many

physical activity interventions for Latinas as being from an individual behavior change approach; instead, health promoters and researchers should address “broader policy and environmental-level changes” (p. 569) that discourage and encourage physical activity. Like Young (2011), I was interested in relationships between women who chose to walk together. Moll (1992) states: “Typically, the less access to formal sectors, the greater the reliance of households on reciprocal networks for survival” (p. 228). Unity and caring for one another are important funds of knowledge, or strengths and affirmative practices. Other important components of funds of knowledge are the activities and knowledge of people, rather than the amount and value of their possessions (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll).

The Institution and CSL Project

The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College (UTB/TSC) has existed for 20 years and has an enrollment of 17,000 students, who seek certificates, as well as associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees. Located along the Mexican border, UTB/TSC has a CSL focus, received the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement classification in 2010, and is part of Texas Campus Compact, a higher-education organization for SL, civic engagement, and community service. Community engagement focuses on reciprocal collaboration and partnerships between higher-education institutions and their communities (Carnegie Foundation, 2011). Civic engagement involves collective or individual actions to identify and address public concerns (American Psychological Association, 2009).

Reciprocity has been an essential element of this CSL project since 2005, when an after-school tutorial director in Esperanza approached me to ascertain whether native flora could planted to beautify the tutorial center, which had a mixture of gravel and weeds surrounding it. Boyle-Baise (2002) states CSL should begin with community concerns. Thus, after a year of co-planning the project, preservice teachers, their tutees, parents, volunteers, and I planted native flora on the grounds of this non-profit agency. In 2007, the tutorial director said community members needed a place to exercise, free of roaming dogs and speeding cars. She asked if we could transform the adjacent church parking lot (approximately 150 square feet) into a walking path and plant native flora around it. Thus, I convinced the county to stripe the parking lot for free, and had professional signs made for stretching exercises and lap/mile conversions.

Before this, Esperanza had no sidewalks and the only place for safe outdoor exercise was on the colonia’s outskirts; after the first round of data gathering, a couple of short sidewalks were installed in the colonia.

Through a yearly $500 UTB/TSC Center for Civic Engagement grant and donations from local businesses, we have implemented this project in Esperanza. Summer 2010 constituted the fifth project year. Under the direction of the tutorial administrator and me, preservice teachers helped children with academics and gardened with them. For 2006 and 2007 I invited enrolled students to participate in the CSL research to determine how it helped them as preservice teachers. In 2008, after establishing trust with Esperanza residents, I included the children being tutored, their parents, and walking path users to determine community impact. This particular report focuses on those using the path. Although the preservice teachers did not collect data, they assisted in designing, planting, and caring for flora, as well as supervising the children. They also contributed plants from home, bought plants to install, and picked up plant donations from local stores.

The Setting

This 50-year-old South Texas community of .6 square miles (1.6 km²) is about a 15-minute drive north of Mexico; 99% of its residents are Latinos/as, 95% are of Mexican origin, and 97% speak Spanish at home (U.S. Census, 2010a).

Although this colonia, or unincorporated neighborhood, is within city limits, city services, including police protection, are not a reality. An implication is little traffic enforcement exists and many are afraid to walk or jog on the streets.

Ironically, city officials have decided to annex several areas and towns as far as 15 miles away, but they have yet to claim Esperanza. Perhaps this is because city administrators view it as a tax drain instead of a tax generator; many of the houses do not have high appraisals. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (No Date) states:

Housing in the colonias is primarily constructed by residents little by little, using available materials. Professional builders are rarely used. Residents frequently start with tents or makeshift structures of word, cardboard, or other materials, and, as their financial situation allows, continue to improve their homes (p. 5).

Even though its 1,300 households are not incorporated, Esperanza is definitely interconnected with the city (Young, 2011). For example, Esperanza students attend public schools in this city, most of Esperanza’s adult residents work and shop in this city, and many who can vote, do.

Esperanza’s 6,000 residents share many socio-economic challenges with the 2,300 colonias located along the Texas/Mexico border (Anderson & Gerber, 2007; Texas Secretary of State, 2010). The average per capita income in Esperanza is $6,000 and 45% of residents over age 24 have less than a ninth grade education (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a, 2010c). Macera et al. (2005) and Cassetta et al. (2007) found relationships between physical activity levels and formal education.

Despite its high poverty level and educational challenges, Esperanza has a cultural center and several churches, and small businesses covering baked goods, groceries, meats, cell phones, beauticians, signage, tires, insurance, flooring, a health clinic, day care, and several snack stands. Several universities provide health promoters, free health clinics, and tutoring; Esperanza residents have community strengths, such as a shared language (Díaz, García, & Smith, 2009) and unity (Bussert-Webb, 2011). Moreover, most of the yards in Esperanza are adorned with several flowers and trees, which convey a sense of rootedness and belonging. Also, many Esperanza women attend aerobics classes at the Catholic Church during weekday mornings and evenings; they often walk together around the path we created. A focus on these community strengths provides support for critical social theory and counters hegemonic deficit models of culturally diverse people who face economic difficulties (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Gorski, 2008).


For the first round of data gathering, from May to September 2008, 52 Hispanic females, 20 and older, completed the 15-minute walker surveys. Most (71%) using the path were over 35 years of age; 12% were 20-24, 17% were 25-35,

23% were 36-45, 27% were 46-55, 17% were 56-65, and 4% were over 66 years old. These statistics are consistent with the age-related obesity rates among the middle aged (Ogden et al., 2006) and Mexican-American women in Ramirez, et al (2007). In terms of educational levels, 52% had less than a ninth grade education, 23% had high school diplomas or GEDs, and 2% had a college degree. The age statistics are consistent with current census tract information for Esperanza.

If I saw adults using the path, I asked if they were regular walking path users before inviting them to sign consent forms. One adult male, who was pushing a stroller with his baby in it, was walking with his wife and mother-in- law. They wanted to complete the survey later, but I did not see them again.

Also, a teen male wanted to participate, but I had institutional approval for people over 18 only. Most participants came from aerobics/dance classes across the street. Their instructor, also a participant, said they walked on the path three days weekly with her and engaged in aerobics twice weekly. One respondent said the group walks began when we created the path.

For the second round, from October to November 2009, 20 of the same women (38%) completed the survey; on the modified survey, all indicated they were of Mexican descent. I contacted them by phone to get their oral consent; next, I met them on the path or at their homes for them to sign the new consent forms and to complete the surveys. Most had either moved or had changed phones, so they could not be contacted for the second round, which is a limitation. Each participant received $5.00 for completing either phase of the research.

I asked each female to choose a survey in Spanish or English; only three chose English. Some said they felt more comfortable dictating their answers to me in Spanish, which may have demonstrated difficulty with print literacy in their native language. Yet one woman asked me to read a Spanish survey to her as she dictated responses to me because she said she forgot her glasses. Fifteen (29%) asked me to dictate record their answers from the Spanish form, even though the two-page typed survey contained simple words and short sentences.

For data analysis, I wrote key words from each quote. After I did this for all words on the surveys, I grouped these words into themes, using the Constant Comparative Method (Glaser, 1965) as a grounded theory approach to analysis. Forty-nine themes emerged, but I collapsed them into three because of recurrent concepts. For example, initial themes for access were: societal structures, such as poverty, immigration law, education, and gender issues; safety; nearby existing exercise classes; needing more programs, benches, and a park-like feel with taller trees; name of the neighborhood mentioned; community resources; health education; church and access; central location; and living close-by. Questions eliciting numbered responses were for descriptive statistics. Walkers’ quotes and words from interviews and surveys, as well as conversations with me, were for qualitative analysis. I chose quotes for this article that highlighted each theme.

Data Sources

Participant observations were part of data gathering, as were two surveys.

The first survey included close- and open-ended questions; demographic questions related to gender, origin (e.g., Hispanic), age, educational level, weight, and height. Other close- and open-ended questions related to personal health problems; blood relatives with diabetes; frequency and duration of walking path use; laps taken; how long they have been using the path; any change noted in their health, mood, or weight since they starting the path; primary reasons they started using the path; and comments and suggestions. Another question was: “If you wouldn’t exercise here on the path, would you exercise? Please explain.” Likert-scale questions were:

  • When I use the path I feel safe or free from danger.
  • The path benefits this neighborhood.
  • The path makes me proud to live in this neighborhood.
  • Walking on the streets in this neighborhood is safe for me.
  • The path does not help this neighborhood.
  • The path does not make me feel more proud to live in this neighborhood.

For the second phase of data gathering, these survey questions were added: “Tell me about your experience with this walking path” and “What is the significance of the walking path to you?” Another new question was about origin (e.g., Mexican, Cuban, etc.). According to Nieto and Bode (2012) specificity in ethnicity can affirm diversity. Also, I wanted to determine participants’ origins because of the preponderance of diabetes among Mexican Americans. Also, based on results from the first survey set, the question concerning highest level of education was changed to reflect a greater range of school completed; all other questions were the same.


Themes emerging from their quotes were access, relationships, and well- being. Access is addressed first because the installation of the path provided the conduit for participants’ friendships with each other, and their mental and physical health and safety improved when they used the path. Numbers and percentages are based on the first phase of data gathering; all names are pseudonyms.


The first theme was access, which included safety; exercise programs; living close to the walking path; more recreational areas needed in the community; and tall trees and benches needed to rest, talk, and to create a park- like feel. Sample quotes for this theme are:

“The ladies from aerobics invited us. There weren’t even aerobics before. It was just walking.”

“I would like for them to bring more programs to help our health …”

“This walking path has helped me tremendously and the location is perfect for everyone.”

“I would like exercise and dance programs and activities to decrease our stress and to relax.”

“I would like for a soccer field for the children to play safe soccer.” “Sometimes we want to enjoy ourselves and sit after the walk, but there aren’t any seats or benches.”

In response to the question, “If you wouldn’t exercise here on the path, would you exercise?”, 29% said no, the path we created was their only form of exercise. However, 29% would participate in an all-female aerobics/Latina dance class at the church across the street. Thus, 58% said they would use the walking path or church-provided exercise, which indicates the walking path and church structures are providing exercise access. Other researchers have found churches to be culturally appropriate exercise sites for Latinas. In their focus group study of 75 low-income Latinas from Houston, ages 40 and older, Ramirez et al. (2007) discovered most favored a church environment to promote female exercise programs: “Participants reported that programs through the church would provide a safe, convenient, and familiar environment and be easily accepted by family, especially the spouse” (p. 5). Perhaps those in the present study felt no harm will come to them on sacred ground because the walking path is on church property.

Also, many noted they would like even more recreational activities in Esperanza. Indeed, access to recreational activities is a key motivator to help people to engage in regular, sustained activity. Cohen et al. (2007) discovered exercise levels were predicted by how close people lived to parks; respondents defined parks as the most common outdoor place they exercised. Also, the researchers found the number and locations of parks to be insufficient to serve many local neighborhoods. Also, culturally diverse people are more likely than Whites to live in low-income neighborhoods (Jargowsky, (2003). The paucity of parks in low-income areas and the concentration of minorities in these places are structural inequalities related to race and class (Young, 2011).

These inequalities can affect people’s health in disastrous ways. Ludwig et al. (2011) followed up on a social experiment designed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in which low-income families were given vouchers to live in low-poverty areas. Approximately 12 and a half years later study subjects who moved to low-poverty areas had a reduction in extreme obesity and diabetes, measured by lower body mass indexes (BMIs) and glycated hemoglobin levels, or blood sugar. Also, Harrington and Elliot (2009) discovered people living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods had the largest BMIs; neighborhoods were measured by three factors: physical (e.g., homes in need of major repair), socio-cultural (e.g., percentages of rental homes and people without high school diplomas), and economic (e.g., home value, household income, and unemployment rate). These researchers have demonstrated health can no longer be ascribed to only individual-level characteristics. Structural inequalities relate to one’s well-being.

On a positive note, findings from the present study indicate that changing structures, such as installing a walking path and starting an all-female aerobics/dance program close-by, can motivate people to exercise. Also, in their focus group discussions, the three most preferred types of exercise favored by 75 Houston Latinas were, in order of importance: walking, dancing, and aerobics (Ramirez et al., 2007).

Yet, if walking and dance are culturally-acceptable motivators for low- income Latinas to exercise, then there are also barriers, such as gender inequalities among groups (Young, 2011). Participants of Ramirez et al. cited familism, or putting family needs before their own, as one of the top barriers to exercise. Familism is also mentioned by Juarbe, Turok, and Pérez-Stable (2002), who studied the benefits and barriers to exercise among 143 Latinas from ages 40 to 79; the researchers found women’s roles in their families and home afforded them little time for physical activity. Similarly, Vasquez (2002) states:

The lack of time and feelings of weariness can be powerful obstacles to exercise. Nurturing others could potentially block a path to the nurturer’s own better health … Hispanic women are known for placing family needs above their own all of their lives, which can serve as a barrier to self care and for exercise in particular (p. 30). Although familism can be a positive phenomenon among Latinos/as (Zinn (1982), as other findings have demonstrated, it may be an obstacle for women’s health.

Participants also wanted the path to have more of a park-like feel with benches; however, a church leader believed drug dealers could sit on the benches to deal. Indeed, Esperanza does have a drug issue, which relate to the structural issues of poverty and immigration law. Some young men are immigrants without legal residency or visas and they see little possibility of substantial legal work. They cannot receive federal financial aid, work legally, or pay for college. Perhaps some believe selling drugs will provide an avenue out of poverty. Yet the benches signified a structural change that would make the walking path more like a park. Although the church leader finally gave permission to install them in May 2009, they were stolen a month later, even when we cemented them to concrete slabs.

The theft of the benches must have occurred late in the night when the path was not in use, because 51 (98%) in the first round of data gathering responded with “agree” or “strongly agree” to this Likert-scale statement: “When I use the path I feel safe or free from danger.” Results from the follow-up survey were similar. To determine if they believed the path was a safe alternative to walking on narrow Esperanza streets with no traffic enforcement, this question was included: “Walking on the streets in this neighborhood is safe for me,” to which 50 (96%) disagreed or strongly disagreed. This indicated most felt safer using the path instead of the streets.

Plazas and parks play important roles in Mexican towns and cities for socializing, exercising, and being with families (Acevedo, 2009). Besides this walking path and one on the periphery, there are no parks or plazas in Esperanza. However, few women and families use the path on Esperanza’s outskirts because I was told a female toddler was raped there a few years ago and that much drug dealing transpires there. Several Esperanza residents said the path on the periphery was not safe. In terms of safe access, 11 (21%) wrote the words “safety” or “danger” in their short-answer responses. Fama wrote: “When my family comes from Matamoros, they tell me they would like to have something safe like this.” Alma also commented, “It’s great a place exists to exercise and to not have to walk in the streets, which are dangerous because of the cars.”

Indeed, the walking path created a safe place for the women who not only feared speeding motorists, but also sexual assault. Valiente, a petite woman and one of few participants with a high school education, felt safer on the path because she was with other women: “There no (pointing to the street), because they [one man] raped me three years ago. Here I feel safe in this place, and I hope it stays the same and that more people come, so they can feel sure of themselves.” A middle aged man from Esperanza is now in prison because he raped Valiente. She said she would be in good health now if he would not have knifed her several times in the abdominal area. Valiente said previously she had walked along streets on a regular basis for exercise for several years, but being violently raped five years ago resulted in major health problems, surgeries, and a fear of exercising on the streets. Yet she said exercising on the path with other women has given her confidence. Shivers ran through me as Valiente discussed not just her experience, but also courage the path has given her. As she spoke, I conjured Take Back the Night vigils when I was an undergraduate at a campus with a high incidence of female rapes. I believe Valiente was describing female solidarity and force in numbers and I interpreted her remarks to indicate women didn’t have to be afraid to take care of their bodies by exercising outside of the home with female friends (Young, 2011).


Relationships, meaning caring for others in reciprocal, meaningful ways, composed the next theme (Noddings, 1992). This theme relates to access because the walking path provided a space for participants to meet others in a safe environment and to form lasting bonds. Sample quotes are:

“Some ladies invited me.”

“The walking path is really good for the community. I hope more people use it.”

“Thank you for worrying about the community.”

“This is really beneficial for us, the residents of [Esperanza].” “It serves to improve the places for families to use.”

“A person feels content and motivated to be with her friends.”

“When we walk with other women we share and we talk about what we would like here.”

As a discourse analysis method to demonstrate respondents’ relationships to others, for the first phase, I counted 19 times they mentioned other people besides family members with health problems. I included nouns and verb tenses because who or what is discussed is often represented in Spanish verbs. These were some words used: for us, for children. because we like it, for all the neighborhood, for our health, for the community, for everyone around here, for families, for your health, we are safe, I met a lot of people, my friends and parents, humanity, in my neighborhood, more people, they invited us, and some ladies invited me.

Besides other-oriented words, the women demonstrated caring (Noddings, 1992) by thanking me orally and several wrote “thank you” on their forms. Furthermore, many embraced me after completing their surveys and whenever they saw me on the path. Camaraderie and caring were also apparent when they helped each other with the surveys. Besides them caring for me and each other, I also felt care and love for them. I felt happy they were enjoying something university students and their tutees helped to create and that the path helped their emotional and physical well-being. Many times as I drove away after talking with participants, tears of joy would overcome me. Indeed, research must focus on helping others (Hostetler, 2005, Reinking, 2011).

Also, the women saw the path as something for everyone, not just themselves. For example, 98% responded with agree or strongly agree to these Likert-scale statements: “The path benefits this neighborhood” and “The path makes me proud to live in this neighborhood.” Activa wrote: “Thank you for making the recreational areas better for [name]” and Consta stated: “It was a good idea to get this path here for all of the neighborhood.” Also, Gracias commented: “I really like to walk and I would love for my friends and family to do the same because our health is important. Thank you for putting in this path and for thinking of humanity.” The comments demonstrated a strong social practice of sharing, which is essential given the economic struggles of most residents. According to Moll (1992): “The exchange of funds of knowledge … is a major strategy to deal with the lack of resources, a strategy developed to harness, control, and manipulate resources” (p. 227).

The overwhelming majority felt the path has helped their colonia, and it made them feel prouder to live there. Also included were two questions posed in the reverse to determine validity; if they answered strongly agree or agree to the first three questions, it was assumed they would answer reversed formatted questions with disagree or strongly disagree. This supposition held true; 98% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement (question 17), “The path does not help this neighborhood” and 98% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement (question 18): “This path does not make me feel more proud to live in this neighborhood.”

The path also enhanced female connectedness (Young, 1995, 2011). Some came knowing only one walker and became friends with many. Mar wrote, “It has helped me because I was really depressed. I was alone in my house. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and it motivates me to talk.” Indeed, recent

studies suggest women who see others in their community exercising are 2.5 times more likely to exercise than women who do not observe community members being physically active (Ramirez, et al., 2007).

Findings from the present study are corroborated in the literature. From their focus group discussions with 20 Mexican American women with diabetes in Arizona, Ingram, Ruis, Mayorga, and Rosales (2009) found social support was vital. Community-based walking groups with the women who had attended diabetes classes helped to provide self- and collective efficacy. Bandura (2007) defined self-efficacy as “perceived operative capability. It is concerned not with what one has but with belief in what one can do with whatever resources one can muster” (p. 6). Ingram et al. define collective efficacy as “the belief that the group can improve their lives through collective effort” (p. 396). In a study conducted in another colonia about an hour from Esperanza, Mier et al. (2011) discovered a culturally relevant walking and support system program helped 16 Mexican- American women. Respondents, who attended an average of 11 support and informational sessions in each others’ homes, reported significant increases in time walking, as well as low stress level scores and symptoms of depression after the 12-week program.


If it would not have been for the improved access to exercise and for the motivation to walk with exercise buddies, this next theme, well-being, would not have emerged during data analysis. Well-being related to mental and physical health and happiness. Sample quotes were:

“My chest hurt a lot and now it doesn’t.”

“Less weight. My diabetes is really good now.” “I like the place; it makes me feel peaceful.”

“I sleep really good, my cholesterol is in check, and I lost inches.” “I have lost weight and I have less stress.”

“It gets rid of some of the stress of living here in the U.S.A., like life in a hurry.” “It has helped a lot with my cholesterol, my diabetes, and in my family life. I have changed a lot because now I’m not so angry. If I get angry, my husband says, ‘Go and exercise.’”

Emotional and physical health relates to middle aged women seeking regular exercise. In the present study 71% using the path were over 35 years of age and 31% were at least 46. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data indicate adults from 40 to 59 are the most overweight or obese among all

age groups (Ogden, et al., 2006). Furthermore, women from 40 to 59 have the highest overweight and obesity prevalence among Mexican American adults; 81% of Mexican American women are overweight and 48% are obese (Ramirez et al., 2007).

Moreover, 35% in the present study reported having heart-related problems, 21% had type 2 diabetes, and one had cancer, which represents 58% with serious medical conditions. Respondents could circle any of seven reasons for using the path and 41 (79%) indicated health-related reasons. Also, 58% reported having blood relatives with diabetes. Suelto wrote her primary reason for path use was her mother’s diabetes, indicating a realization of her genetic predisposition to the disease (Caballero, 2005). Every participant who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes also said her blood relatives had this disease.

Because most Esperanza residents are uninsured (Moore, 2007), they may have not have been able to go to a doctor or clinic to have their blood sugar levels tested; thus, they may have not known if they had diabetes (Fisher-Hoch et al. 2010). The 21% who reported having diabetes corresponds with the diabetes estimates in our geographic region. One startling statistic is diabetes-related amputations in the lower extremities are twice as high in Texas-Mexico border counties than in non-border counties (Center for Disease Control, 2006).

Instead of exercising to prevent illnesses, perhaps the 57% with diabetes, heart-related issues, and/or cancer may have begun exercising as a result of chronic illness.Unfortunately, the disease model of health care is much more prevalent than the prevention model, especially among older adults (Hansen- Kyle, 2006). Yet these women’s regular exercise provides hope. In the first research phase, 71% reported using the path for at least four months and 29% for at least a year. In the second phase, 95% had used the path for at least a year. In the first phase, 77% reported using it at least four times weekly, 13% three times, 8% twice, and 2% once weekly, which would be 190 times weekly they walked on the path. Findings in the second phase were similar.

For each time they used the path, 12% walked 1-5 laps, 25% 6-10 laps, 23%

11-19 laps, 33% 20-30 laps, and 10% 30 or more laps. Eight laps represented a mile, so at least 65% walked over a mile each time. Sixty-nine percent used the path for at least 30 minutes each time, 27% walked between 15-30 minutes and only 4% walked between 1-14 minutes; one did not respond to the question.

Findings in the second phase corroborate these self-reports.

I matched each participant’s total times weekly using the path with how many minutes she reported walking each time; 62% were following doctor’s recommendations of walking two to three hours/week (Cassetta et al., 2007; Macera et al., 2005). If someone walks at least four times weekly for at least 30 minutes each time, this would be two hours weekly. The 62% who met medical recommendations is actually an underestimate because the survey response possibilities included 15-30 minutes and 31-60 minutes. Those who reported walking exactly 30 minutes each time had to bubble in 15-30 minutes, which put them at lower doctor’s recommendations for exercise; future surveys could be changed because many indicated they walked 30 minutes each time.

All 52 noted improvements in health, mood, or weight, with 42% mentioning better health, 42% weight loss, and 33% improved mood; some mentioned all three. Also, 87% said their clothes were looser around the waist, the most important part of the body for preventing or controlling type 2 diabetes; belly size can predict type 2 diabetes (Weyer et al., 2000; Harrington & Elliot, 2009).

Some commented that walking and being around other women helped them to overcome depression, also. Feliz wrote, “I have improved my eating habits and my health has improved a lot. My depression has left forever.” Others noted the joy of exercising; they said they had fun and felt good walking, which might relate to the endorphin release associated with rigorous walking for at least 30 minutes. These findings are corroborated by Hays (1999), who found from a meta-analysis that exercise helped depression, stress, anxiety, weight loss, and self-esteem, among others things.


Perhaps some learned about $5.00 for walker participation and survey completion, so they came to the path when I was there and began walking on it so they could complete the survey. Yet, I do know most were also involved in aerobics/dance classes across and their instructor told me they walked on the path with her three days weekly. The classes, although welcomed, could have related to the positive health and social relationship results in this study.

Another limitation relates to the lack of data triangulation; only two rounds of surveys and my observations were data sources. Also, the surveys were self-reports and therefore may not be accurate. Last, only 38% participated in the second phase; many of the phone numbers participants gave me no longer worked and many had moved. This may be the result of the immigrant status of many, as well as their economic struggles.


The walking path, installed by my students, their tutees, and volunteers in May 2007 and enhanced each May as a CSL project, was in response to the community’s need for a safe place to exercise. Written statements and numbered responses from 52 Latinas were a testament of how the CSL project helped the community. This path had an impact on the women’s relationships, mental and physical well being, and access to safe and enjoyable places to exercise and socialize. Also, the path installation demonstrated that structural changes in one’s environment can help people.

According to Hostetler (2005): “Good research is a matter not only of sound procedures, but also of beneficial aims and results. Our ultimate aim as researchers is to serve people’s well-being – the well-being of students, teachers, communities and others” (p. 17). Moreover, relationship building with a particular group is essential for beneficial research. I have built a relationship with the walkers and other community members because of the on-going CSL in which I am involved.

Sharma (2008) mentions the dearth of longitudinal studies on exercise interventions for Latinas and posits interventions should be at least six-months long to determine sustainable physical activity behaviors. Because one survey cannot determine whether an exercise program, park, or path has improved long-term quality of life, I conducted a second phase of data gathering a year later and improved the survey. All but one indicated they are still using the path created by UTB/TSC students and community members as part of a CSL project. Similarly, Mier et al. (2011) discovered a program they helped to create, ¡Vamos a Caminar! (Let’s Walk), also had positive results for Mexican-American women in a colonia not far from Esperanza. They attributed health outcomes to the program’s home-based focus, low cost, and cultural appropriateness. The same attributes could be said of a walking path we created in Esperanza. Findings demonstrate CSL can assist more than those directly providing and receiving services. Indirect service learning project can have ripple effects for an entire community.


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About the Author:

Kathy Bussert-Webb

Kathy Bussert-Webb is an Associate Professor in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Intercultural Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Language Education from Indiana University in 1997.

Associate Professor, Language, Literacy, and Intercultural Studies Department, The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, 80 Ft. Brown, Brownsville, TX 78520.

© 2012 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.