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Press Release

Release Date: November 03, 2020

by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

  • Gabriella Mendez

Kingston, Okla - Gabriella Mendez, Kingston Schools’ HealthCorps living lab coordinator, has been named a recipient of Oklahoma’s NextGen Under 30 honors for K-12 Education.

Mendez is a native of San Francisco, California and Tishomingo, Oklahoma. She earned a Bachelors in Biology from Methodist University in North Carolina and will graduate from Oklahoma State University later this year with a Master’s degree in Public Health.

In her role as coordinator of Kingston Schools’ HealthCorps program, Mendez mentors students, teaching health related workshops ranging from cooking clubs and fitness challenges to special programs for teens on mental resilience. The Chickasaw Nation sponsors HealthCorps in schools in Kingston, Marietta, Davis, Purcell and Newcastle.

“I am so grateful for the constant support and encouragement I get from HealthCorps and the Kingston family,” Mendez said. “I feel so lucky that I get to wake up every day and work with these students and make a difference in their lives.

“This award means so much to me, but I truly could not have done it without the opportunities I get through HealthCorps and the Chickasaw Nation.”

Kingston High School was closed for two weeks in October due to COVID-19 precautions, which meant transitioning to a virtual format. Mendez says doing so is better than no contact with her students, but she much prefers a traditional in-school classroom setting.

“It’s a little harder virtually than it is in person,” she said. “You get a better feel of the students in person and I feel like I can engage with them more that way.”

One HealthCorps project in the works is refurbishing and reconstituting a greenhouse on the school’s campus.

“We’re rebuilding the greenhouse, which has been inactive for a long time,” Mendez said. “I have gotten in partnership with Leon’s Greenhouse in Kingston. We’re getting a new cover put on it, cleaning it up and getting it back in shape again.

“We’re going to start growing some simple vegetables and maybe some fruit. The goal is for students to learn responsibility in growing food and doing research about dishes or recipes that could go with it. It’s like a farm to table type thing on a much smaller scale,” she said.

Another new effort focuses on high school students mentoring younger students. In that way the more advanced grades serve as a peer group, allowing younger students to learn from older students.

“We have a Youth Action Council consisting of five high school students who have to apply and be accepted for it. They are working on creating a mentorship program and coming up with a health initiative they would like to bring to Kingston.”

Mendez said her Youth Action Council members will, among other things, help teach younger students about mental health and nutrition.

Youth Action Council members also get a monthly opportunity to meet virtually with fellow HealthCorps student leaders across the country, as well as hear influential local and nationally recognized guest speakers.

Mendez says an October walking challenge for teachers, administrators and students alike tabulated three million plus steps.

A healthier nutritional Halloween emphasis featured stuffed bell peppers with the vegetables carved in jack-o-lantern style. A recipe card accompanied the treat for students who took them home.

Future initiatives include hosting a spring talent show fundraiser, the funds from which will go toward purchase of a filtered water fountain for the school.

Mendez says she is looking at options to conduct a virtual spring 2021 health fair if coronavirus prevents coordinating the traditional in-person event.

“I would like to do a traditional health fair, keeping social distancing and other safety protocols,” she said. “I think it’s possible, but I want to get a bit more information on how to host a virtual event if it becomes necessary.”