April 18, 2019

At Work with Julia Sanchez

This post is part of our #HGatWork series, giving you an inside look at the people behind our work and the leaders who further our mission to empower kids to develop lifelong healthy habits.

Julia Sanchez is a Healthy Schools and Communities Program Manager based in West Palm Beach, Florida. For the last six years, Julia has been working to transform children’s environments with Healthier Generation, a passion stemming from her own childhood experiences. As a hardworking community activist, Julia prioritizes self-healing through interaction and appreciation of nature. Read on to learn more about Julia.


What inspired you to work for Healthier Generation?

I was inspired by my childhood. I was bullied for being overweight as a child and was raised in two very different communities – the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and a very small island in the Caribbean. My family noticed that my health was strongly influenced by the environment and culture in which we lived. On the island, where we were far more active, less stressed, and had limited access to restaurants, my health improved. This personal experience awakened me to the challenges we face in the United States around health equity, inspiring me to commit my professional work to holistic health promotion in low-income communities. One of my first jobs out of college was developing and leading the Healthy Girls Initiative with Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida. Launching the Healthy Out-of-School Time work in South Florida with Healthier Generation allowed me to evolve my approach from programmatic design and delivery to more sustainable (but also more elusive) policy, systems, and environmental change.    


What does a typical work day look like for you?

It’s cliché, but one of my favorite things about working with Healthier Generation is that there is no typical day, per se. 

I have several days each week in “the field,” which lately means taking a train ride south to Miami-Dade County. On these days I may be facilitating the physical activity and nutrition sub-council meeting of the community health coalition Live Healthy Miami Gardens, delivering a training or technical assistance to one of our Healthy Out-of-School Time intermediary partner organizations, participating in a meeting of the Miami-Dade County Public School District Wellness Committee, or giving a presentation for United Way of Miami-Dade’s Health Impact Team. 

On days that I do not have in-person engagements, I am generally working from my standing desk at my home office or working some place with strong “cafecito” and Wi-Fi. This computer-based work includes hallmarks of project management and nonprofit program administration: developing training and technical assistance presentations, writing extensive reports for our funders, lots of Excel, and emails. Like many of my Healthier Generation colleagues, I spend time each week on conference calls, some of which I take while walking the neighborhood or weeding my garden. 


What are you working on right now that really excites you? 

Through grant funding from the Health Foundation of South Florida and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, I am leading the Live Healthy Miami Gardens Healthy Out-of-School Time Initiative with Concerned African Women, a community-based social services nonprofit organization. Healthier Generation has been working with Concerned African Women for several years now, and I’m excited to be providing their organization with capacity-building training and technical assistance that supports their emerging leadership of health and wellness work in their community. Presently, I am reviewing and providing feedback on draft action plans from Concerned African Women’s out-of-school time site cohort in preparation for awarding $30,000 in Healthy Out-of-School Time implementation grants to the sites. Supporting out-of-school time sites by connecting them with the funding and resources they need to make the positive changes of their dreams and visions happen is a favorite part of my job. 


What does working at Healthier Generation mean to you?

This changes day to day, but lately, working at Healthier Generation means bridging the needs and potential of grassroots organizations with funding and resources. It also means cultivating and evolving a diverse movement to change American society for the better, being empowered to explore complex social problems, and working with others to chart a course toward health equity and wider social justice.  


What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment (personal or professional)?

I am grateful for the good work I’ve been able to do with Healthier Generation and other nonprofits, but my strongest labor of love is the volunteer work I have done around reconnecting people to the healing power of nature. Time in nature—whether the beaches, swamps and hammocks of South Florida, the magnificence of the Amazon rainforest, or the old mountains of western North Carolina—is my medicine. 

As a certified herbalist living in one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the nation, I am passionate about honoring the deep universal cultural heritage that we all share, which is that all our ancestors used locally-growing plants as food and medicine for the vast majority of human history. I believe that reconnecting to nature and the traditions of our ancestors, starting with connecting with the plants growing all around us, is an important strategy for the incredible culture change work facing us as a species globally, but particularly in South Florida—human adaptation to climate change.  

Since moving to South Florida seven years ago, to share in this celebration of plants and folk healing traditions, I have:

  • Established a community medicine garden at the legendary Earth n Us Farm.
  • Created the Magic City Herbalist course, which to date has over 30 graduates.
  • Co-created the Medicina Tropical retreat, with South Florida herbalists Paula Diaz and Monique Moyer.
  • Created and shared children’s songs about medicinal herbs, with my husband through our Materia Musica musical duo.
  • Mentored South Florida herbalists who have gone on to start an herbal CSA and created their own workshops.
  • Served as a teacher at the Florida Herbal Conference since 2013. 

These are my greatest accomplishments to date.    


At Healthier Generation, we place a lot of emphasis on work-life balance and living a healthy lifestyle. How do you maintain a healthy balance and “walk the talk?”

I relate to fellow activists and nonprofit professionals that are constantly flirting with and then courageously sidestepping burnout at the eleventh hour. My personal sustainability in this social change work comes from several simple practices: 

  • Staying hydrated with lots of water and herbal teas.
  • Prioritizing sleep, which sometimes means grappling with the guilt associated with sleeping in.
  • Being sure I am getting time outside in nature and exercise every day. Whether it’s simply watering my garden, biking to yoga class, taking a quick dip in the ocean or slowly walk-jogging to my favorite mango tree in my neighborhood park.
  • Doing my best to prepare a healthy midday meal; we are big into salad kits with simple proteins like tuna fish and tempeh plus herbs from the garden these days.
  • Taking periodic weekend retreats with my church to unplug from the hustle and bustle of urban South Florida for my sanity.
  • Allowing myself to take breaks even during the work day. It took me a few years to get the courage to step away from the computer for an hour to go swim laps at the neighborhood pool, but since doing so I have discovered that the world does not stop turning, nor do I lose my job if I take a midday break.
  • Reminding myself why I am doing this work by making a quick visit to my six-month-old goddaughter down the street or my eight-year-old niece and six-year-old nephew in Miami.


What is one of your favorite memories from your time here at Healthier Generation?

Thankfully, I have lots of cherished memories from my work with the South Florida community, but I’ll share a memory that is reflective of Healthier Generation’s unique culture as an organization. Several years ago, our national Healthy Out-of-School Time team held an offsite gathering at our office in Portland, Oregon. At this offsite, our team engaged in a powerful dismantling racism training from folks at the Western States Center. Later we did some team building and community service activity – weeding a school garden (which yielded some amazing dandelion roots that TSA enjoyed inspecting on my way back home to Florida) and discussed systems change theory while cruising around town in a van with colleagues to treat ourselves to organic ice cream (because, all good things in moderation). This offsite was peak Healthier Generation culture to me.   


Rumor has it that you’ve got quite a green thumb. How did your gardening hobby come about and what do you have growing this year?

Nature has always been my sanctuary – my fondest childhood memories involve hiking in urban parks in Washington, D.C. and hours on the beach and “the bush” with friends in the islands. As an adolescent, I experienced a healing crisis where plant-based medicines saved my life. As a young adult, I worked on organic farms and as my studies with plants deepened, I became a “wildcrafter” (also known as a forager) of wild medicinal plants. When I moved to Miami in 2011, I started brewing herbal-infused kombucha and, upon request, teaching my neighbors to do so—then my herbal practice suddenly and unexpectedly really took off. The next step in my cultivating my relationship with the plants and my community was to grow the herbs I used the most in my kitchen and apothecary. This study was nurtured by being surrounded by green-thumb permaculturists at the Earth n Us Farm. 

These days, in my humble little garden at home in West Palm Beach, we have tropical food crops such as chaya, moringa, Barbados cherry, banana and kumquat…familiar culinary herbs such as rosemary, basil, and thyme…celebrated medicinal herbs including elder (the one that makes berries that go into elderberry syrup), lemon balm, chamomile, aloe and tulsi…and tropical medicinal herbs such as anamu and lantana…and a nice patch of my favorite Florida weed, Bidens alba (known as Spanish needle). 

When we grow a garden or even just acknowledge and respect the elements (earth, air, fire, water) that keep us alive, every day is Earth Day!