Nine years after his tragic death, second grader with big dreams still inspires schools’ wellness programs

Posted: Thursday, November 14th 2019


Walking into Central Elementary in City Heights, visitors will notice the school’s health and wellness clinic, a unique facility complete with multiple exam and treatment rooms. Within this welcoming space on the neighborhood school campus, a blue star in the center of the floor might go unnoticed.

The star lies not far from where second-grader Damareon Bracks once spent his days learning, laughing, and inspiring those around him. Today it marks the memory of his big dreams and zest for a life that was tragically cut too short.

Thousands of students and families throughout San Diego know about the menu of health and social support services available at their schools’ campus wellness centers. What they may not know is the story behind the San Diego Unified School District Wellness Initiative, and how one boy’s tragic death inspired a wellness movement and created a lasting bond between his family and an elementary school principal-turned-superintendent.

As a young principal at Central, Cindy Marten had a special relationship with each of her students. One of those students was Damareon Bracks. The principal and the student bonded over his ideas as they talked about his future.

“Damareon’s favorite color was blue, and he would draw blue stars everywhere,” said Marten, now Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. “He loved the shape of a star. He was a big fan of President Obama. He certainly had big dreams for the future.”

Unfortunately, he never had the chance to see that future. While in just his first few weeks of second grade, Damareon suddenly collapsed and passed away due to sickle cell disease - a disease that can be treated, and one that disproportionately impacts the black community.

Soon thereafter, in a partnership with La Maestra, San Diego Family Care, and the Price Family Charity Fund, Central Elementary opened a new School-Based Health Clinic (SBHC) on campus.

But it was only the first such center in San Diego Unified, and Damareon’s tragedy remained in the heart of his young principal. When Marten was elevated to the role of superintendent, she remembered Damareon’s story and promised to do something about it.

Out of that tragedy came the concept for San Diego Unified’s Wellness Centers, now a fixture on several campuses with more to come.

Launched in 2016 as a component of the district’s wellness initiative, the Centers promote health and well-being of students, staff and families. Currently there are over 170 school site wellness programs, 62 Wellness Council members, eight School-Based Health Clinics, and five high school Wellness Centers.

The Wellness Centers are located in high-need areas and serve approximately 9,500 students who are eligible for free or reduced priced meals, and are staffed with coordinators to assist students, staff and families with mental health support, legal aid, life skills workshops, parent & adult education, food assistance, housing aid, nutrition & cooking education, and tutoring.

Students are already taking advantage of the resources available; the number of student visits doubled from 4,644 during the 2017-2018 school year to 13,104 during the 2018-2019 school year.

Analicia Contreras, a San Diego High senior serving as her school’s Student Wellness Ambassador and School Site Wellness Committee member, says the Center’s presence on campus is a benefit in many ways.

“Interning in the Wellness Center means bringing positivity into my life and my community,” Contreras said. “I’m able to gain valuable tips regarding everything ‘wellness,’ such as mental and physical health, and I share that knowledge with my community.”

A student survey conducted by the Wellness staff found that 100% of students felt safe or very safe accessing the Centers, 98% were satisfied or very satisfied with their visit, 97% report feeling more connected to school, having more hope, and feeling as though someone cares about them. 100% say they would recommend the Center to a classmate. 

As San Diego Unified looks to continue expanding these new Wellness Centers, Superintendent Marten will mark what would have been the 17th birthday of the young student by visiting his grave on December 28th along with Damareon’s mother, Val.

“Damareon’s life and death influenced me so deeply as a person and as an educator,” Marten said. “In some small way, Damareon’s memory is kept alive through the work at the wellness centers. The fact that he died from a treatable, detectable disease makes it even more vital that we work as a city to ensure resources like these are more accessible to all children.”

Damareon’s legacy has made an impact beyond San Diego, too. While the youngster was never able to meet the president he idolized, his name and story eventually made it to the White House.

When Marten visited the White House in 2016 for an Arts Education event, she was scheduled to meet First Lady Michelle Obama, but also hoped to meet President Obama. So she brought with her a special memory: Damareon’s art-work from when he declared in first grade that his big dream was to meet President Obama. Marten had met with Damareon at the beginning of his second grade year to talk about his big dream that they both shared. She told him that the thing about dreaming big is that our dreams eventually do come true, somehow, some way, some day.

 


 

The Wellness Centers are successful because of San Diego Unified’s hardworking wellness staff and the generous support of community partners including the American Heart Association, Champions of Health, County of San Diego, Family Health Centers, Feeding San Diego, the Hillcrest Youth Center, International Rescue Committee, Harmonium, Mental Health America, San Diego Housing Commission, Paving Great Futures, SAY San Diego, Students Without Limits, Urban Beats, YMCA, and Vista Hill.

The wellness centers have also benefited from generous financial contributions through the California Endowment and Jerome’s Furniture, making each center more student-and family-friendly with new furniture, computers and equipment.

The district’s long-term goal is to expand the Wellness Centers to all 16 comprehensive high schools with a full-time Wellness Center Coordinator at each location. To learn more about the wellness centers, please visit: https://www.sandiegounified.org/health-and-wellness.

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