There are any numbers of priorities the mayor of a City like Everett could focus on.
It could be sidewalks, public safety, job creation or the like.
But there’s one focus that Mayor Carlo DeMaria has centered in on over the last two years that virtually no one else in municipal government has considered – that being community health. DeMaria is just coming off accepting two major awards over the weekend for his health initiatives in childhood obesity and the new Everett Wellness Center – one national award in Washington, D.C. and another in Boston.
He told the Independent this week in an interview that he is very proud of the Wellness Center, saying it is a combination of visions by himself and his wife, Stacey, as well as his staff.
He said the health of residents is an area that government doesn’t usually tread – often leaving it up to health centers and hospitals – but he indicated that Everett’s foray into wellness as a municipality might just change that.
“This started when one day I was looking at some statistics about childhood obesity from Cambridge Health Alliance and our rates were very high,” he said. “I see kids in Everett healthy and happy, but I see a lot of childhood obesity too. I look at these kids and see myself when I was their age. However, back when I was 14, I got a membership to Gold’s Gym in Everett and it transformed my life. From age 14 to 25 I was fit, exercising and eating right. I had the right people to counsel me. That’s what I’m trying to do with the Wellness Center. That’s the vision my wife and I had for it. The direction at the Wellness Center is not to let any interaction with the public go by without having a conversation about diet and exercise. We don’t want people to go there and get lost and give up. We want them to be successful and want to help them get there, like people helped me.
“We have 4,000 members now and the place is hopping,” he continued. “There were issues at the beginning, but we’ve established some good rules and it’s growing…This is certainly proving that government should get involved with people to help them get healthy.”
The Wellness Center opened back in March and, after some tweaks, has become a very popular place to work out year round. Karen Avila and her staff run the facility, and the former gym at the old Everett High School has been transformed. There are free weights, machine weights, a yoga studio, a Spinning studio, kids classes with the YMCA, childcare, basketball courts, fitness classes, a golf practice room, and cardio machines.
The memberships go for $15 per month for a family or $150 per year. Personal trainers are free, and there are plenty of people to help anyone wanting to ask questions. It is open seven days a week and they are looking to perhaps extend the hours.
The Center was really a way to use part of the old high school that DeMaria, at one point, had wanted to tear down. After being denied that privilege by the Council, DeMaria said he began to think creatively. Cobbling together budget lines items here and there – and relying on some great work by the DPW – the old gym was transformed into an innovative municipal health program.
“It’s really one-stop shopping here,” said Avila. “It’s is incredibly unique for a City and really necessary because Everett has some of the highest obesity rates. Something needs to be done and the mayor is being proactive. It’s very, very unique and the place has become like a neighborhood. It’s great for the elderly and for parents with kids. It’s really a fit for everyone. I really do see it as something that will continue to get bigger and bigger.”
DeMaria harkened back to the days when he was younger and folks like Peter Morel and the American Nutrition Center motivated hundreds of Everett gets to get fit and exercise. That was a formative experience for him, he said, and it’s something he wants to provide to kids in Everett today.
He also said there was an article that caught his attention, stating that companies today want to locate in healthy communities – and actually look at health statistics if they plan to do extensive hiring when the move.
“When these companies come into a city they are going to hire local people,” he said. “They don’t want to come to a community where the people they hire are sick and unhealthy and can’t come to work. It will hurt their productivity and they’ll go elsewhere. I want Everett to be an attractive place in terms of health for companies looking at us.”
Along those lines at the Wellness Center, there is more than exercise.
In fact, the City offers residents a Fresh Meals program, where for $60 per person, a fresh customized meal is prepared weekly. That price includes 18 meals for six days – with the seventh day being reserved for a home cooked meal.
“That’s just $3 per meal and it’s a good meal,” he said. “That’s better than any fast food or restaurant can provide – and probably healthier. For a family of four, you just eliminated a huge grocery bill and a lot of work. Right now, you have to pick the meals up, but it’s growing so fast that I think we’ll have to get into some type of a delivery system.”
Over the next two years in his current term, DeMaria said he would continue to focus foremost on health.
“We’re really going to focus on the health of the City,” he said. “That’s going to be a major priority…I see people and kids getting cancer and it’s alarming. I want people to be healthy. Whatever I can do as a local urban community, I’m going to do it. We have the resources and the studies by professionals. It’s up to us to read them and put it into practice. This is more than just a Wellness Center, I think.