Empowering Veterans to Improve Community Health

November 1, 2013, Department, by Jimmy O’Connor

Veterans are being recruited by park and recreation agencies to instruct high-energy programs ranging from Zumba to water aerobics to boot-camp fitness at zero to low cost for participants.The Coca-Cola Foundation has a long history of supporting initiatives that strengthen community togetherness, and perhaps this has never been more clearly shown than through Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness. Launched in Chicago in November 2012, followed by San Antonio in June 2013, Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness supports employing veterans as fitness instructors within community recreation facilities.

Expanding nationwide during fall 2013 through a partnership with NRPA, Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness is now also in Miami-Dade County and the cities of Newark, Atlanta and Sacramento. Development plans include expansion across four additional communities in each of the next two years, ultimately implementing the program through NRPA across 12 major metropolitan areas by 2016. NRPA’s support of Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness embraces local park and recreation agencies as the foundation for improving community health.

This unique collaboration aligns community park and recreation agencies with the leadership skills and fitness expertise of U.S. veterans to help combat the nation’s health woes stemming from sedentary lifestyles. Veterans are being recruited by these agencies to instruct high-energy programs ranging from Zumba to water aerobics to boot-camp fitness at zero to low cost for participants. The Coca-Cola Foundation’s support is enabling participating veterans to develop their fitness programs while providing community members with affordable opportunities to improve their health. Additionally, these 12 communities are contributing to the development of a guide that will serve as a model for other communities to replicate similar initiatives in the future.


Interview with Laura Ortiz, Veteran Recruited by Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces

How did you become involved with Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces?

I became involved with Miami-Dade through a recreational therapist by the name of Jody Cox; she works in the disability services department at Goulds Community Center. Jody thought I would be an ideal candidate for the Troops for Fitness initiative, considering my line of work at the local YMCA over the past two years as a fitness instructor to the active older adults, certified personal trainer and spinning instructor. So I acted upon her advice, and the rest is history, as the saying goes.

What is your connection to the multiple dimensions of Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness?

My connection varies since, after all, I am a veteran, a Latina woman, an amputee, a Paralympic athlete, and a certified personal trainer, fitness instructor and spinning instructor. I value my contribution to helping develop and sustain programs that enrich the lives of all moved by this initiative, particularly those who need it the most. 

What is your role with the Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness program in Miami-Dade?

I will be collaborating on the development of the fitness programs so that they are structured to be successful and sustainable. The end result is that by sharing our expertise as fitness instructors and creating an exercise regimen that incorporates our fitness zones, we can recognize ability, level of conditioning and modifications needed. We then have a baseline to prescribe a routine that focuses on strengthening weak areas of the body and building endurance, which leads to losing weight and improving postural alignment, breathing, balance, coordination and agility. My hope is that our community members will embrace these resources and want to change their level of awareness while being empowered to make healthier choices, which I believe will be part of the solution to lowering the statistics on obesity on a nationwide level.

What are your thoughts on Coca Cola-Troops for Fitness as it relates to an individual’s health and opportunities for veterans?

It will have a positive outcome on our youth, our active older adults and veterans as long as we continue to individually and collectively have a social responsibility to our communities, and tackle the obesity problem head-on. We can no longer pretend it is not affecting us, as we relate to the inflation of healthcare costs. 

I believe when we focus our work in three key areas — nurturing the potential of kids, helping people live healthier and supporting our neighbors — we all succeed. As far as my participation as a veteran goes, I agree it is crucial to integrate us in a proactive way. It signals a positive message to our communities that although we have endured lots at a time of uncertainty, we remain optimistic when developing ourselves and our relationships. We are investing in our future, which makes the possibilities endless for change and growth.

Jimmy O’Connor is NRPA’s Senior Manager of Grants and Partnerships.