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Local Teens Use Entrepreneurial Skills to 'Beat Diabetes'

December 04, 2012

For many average American high school students, summer is a time to sleep in, hang out with friends and just relax away from school, homework and responsibilities. But that's not what Mission San Jose High School seniors Howard Liu and Vishak Menon did last summer.

"We wanted to do something to help our Fremont community," explained Howard.

In talking over their ideas, Howard and Vishak realized they had something more in common than their friendship. They both have grandparents who have diabetes - Howard's grandmother and Vishak's grandfather.

The two friends created a plan to design and sell t-shirts with a dual purpose: First, to increase awareness about the seriousness of diabetes and encourage people to get screened. Second to raise funds to fight diabetes.

Next, the young entrepreneurs had to figure out where they would donate the money they planned to raise.

"We could have donated to the American Diabetes Association, which is a very fine organization, but we wanted to do something that would have local impact in our community," Howard recalled.

When they contacted Washington Hospital in Fremont, they found the perfect opportunity. In the summer, the Hospital's Washington On Wheels (W.O.W) Mobile Health Clinic offers free diabetes screenings for anyone who comes in. If testing indicates the person needs treatment, and if they are uninsured and unable to pay, the Hospital provides care through the W.O.W. clinic and diabetes self-management education classes.

For people who have diabetes, Washington Outpatient Diabetes Center offers the BASICS Program, which provides individual assessments and comprehensive group classes to teach people how to successfully manage their disease. The classes are free for people who have no health care coverage.

Howard and Vishak decided this is where funds raised by their t-shirt project should go - to help more people get screened for diabetes and receive treatment and education, if needed. Next, the teens got together with another friend who is a graphic design student. Together, they developed an eye-catching red and white "beat diabetes" logo completely from scratch. Then, they had it printed on black t-shirts. Their creative idea for fighting diabetes locally was off to a great start.

What Howard and Vishak may not have realized is that, for several reasons, their project is perfectly suited to meet the unique needs of the Tri-City community.

For instance, they may not have known that a 2004 Community Needs Assessment of Alameda County revealed that Union City, Newark and Fremont ranked near the top of the list of local cities with the highest mortality rates from diabetes. The study is conducted every three years by Washington Hospital Healthcare System, in conjunction with the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California, to help identify crucial health issues affecting residents living in Washington Township Health Care District. The most recent assessment shows diabetes mortality rates in the Tri Cities have decreased, however, the number of people being diagnosed with diabetes has increased.

Another little known fact is that, of the nearly 26 million Americans who have diabetes, many don't know it. According to the American Diabetes Association, 7 million people in the U.S. have diabetes but have not been diagnosed. Another 79 million people have prediabetes, which means their blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as having diabetes. For these groups, it is vital that we get the word out about diabetes and what can happen if it is not identified and managed effectively. For people with prediabetes, preventive measures may enable them to avoid getting the disease in the first place.

This November, Diabetes Awareness Month, Howard and Vishak were busy promoting their project. On Nov. 17, they participated in Washington Hospital's Fifth Annual Diabetes Awareness Health Fair. Their t-shirt booth was one of many offering services, screenings and information about diabetes treatment, self-management and prevention.

"Some people bought shirts," reports Howard. "But, others just wanted to give us a donation so less fortunate people could be screened and receive services. It was very heartwarming."

The following week, Howard and Vishak targeted a younger population. They sold their t-shirts on the quad of their school during lunchtime. Reaching out to teens with a message about diabetes is a great idea. Once considered an older person's disease, more and more children are now being diagnosed with diabetes and those youngsters will have to learn how to manage this chronic disease for the rest of their lives. Prevention through health eating and regular exercise is a much better option.

Washington Hospital is excited about the support it's receiving from the sale of the t-shirts. With the ongoing economic struggles in this area and many people out of work, there are a great many more people who have no insurance coverage and looking to the W.O.W. clinic for care. The need for free or low-cost diabetes-related services has never been greater.

"Our goal is to provide detection, treatment and education to anyone in need, especially those without insurance who don't have many options," said Ruth Traylor, director of Community Outreach for Washington Hospital Healthcare System. "Diabetes can lead to many complications and hospitalizations, and our goal is to prevent that. The money raised will allow more people to benefit from these important services."

To learn more about Washington Hospital's Outpatient Diabetes Center and the Washington On Wheels Mobile Health Clinic, go to www.whhs.com. For more information about diabetes, visit the Web site of the American Diabetes Association at www.diabetes.org.