When Estrella Hernandez sat in her sixth-grade health class to watch Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Supersize Me,” she had no idea the inspiration from that film would take her from a middle school classroom to national spotlight in a span of two years. Inspired by both the documentary and a family history of diabetes complications, she felt she had to do something to help others prevent childhood diabetes and obesity.
Estrella, 13, is an incoming freshman at Alamo Heights High School. With the help from local design and technology firm SwebApps, Estrella has been developing a fitness application to encourage better health among children and teenagers.
“I kept thinking of ways to get kids involved and engaged, and saw that kids universally love technology,” she said.
WeWalk, an iOS mobile app currently in beta testing, combines fitness with gaming and trivia. Users can rack up points by taking or creating different “quests” to walking/biking trails and participating with other users in local fitness events, such as Síclovía – the opening event for the app’s “city quest.”
When combined with social media platforms, users can even share their points, fitness trails, and accomplishments with others. Eventually, Estrella plans for these points to unlock virtual and realistic rewards, from online badges and accomplishments to theme park discounts.
Obesity has become central in many conversations about public health in San Antonio and across the country, and the problem has been described as an “epidemic” by countless health care professionals and politicians alike. With a growing number of obese children in the United States, 80 percent of whom could stay obese into adulthood, health officials have suggested and explored many options in order to prevent obesity at younger ages. WeWalk could be a major punch in the fight against obesity and diabetes.
“Our goal is to empower kids to take control of fitness in their own world,” Estrella said. Though other fitness apps exist for a variety of platforms, she said there were no apps available for a younger audience. She hopes to complete and release WeWalk for free in the fall on iOS and Android, three months after the end of WeWalk’s Indiegogo fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $198,975 by August 8.
San Antonio has a diabetes rate of 14 percent, twice as high as the national average rate of 7 percent. Though that rate is decreasing, the city also ranks third in the nation for obesity, with a 31 percent obesity rate among San Antonio adults recorded in 2013. According to the American Heart Association, one third of children in America are obese, which can expedite the path to diabetes and related problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Having diabetes can complicate these problems, adding stroke, blindness, and kidney failure to those risks.
Obese youth also can be affected early on by a number of ailments, with 70 percent diagnosed with at least one cardiovascular illness and 39 percent diagnosed with at least two.
Estrella, only 11 years old when she thought of the app, started immediately to present her idea and seek funding and support. The app went from an idea to a tangible program in the summer of 2013, when Estrella attended the Girl Startup 101 camp at VentureLab. Though she only had a rough pitch initially, she credits the camp with helping her learn more advanced pitching, as well as connecting her to others who could help her program and fund WeWalk.
VentureLab, which dubs itself an “innovation and entrepreneurship academy,” hosts a number of programs and camps throughout the year on a variety of topics, including video game design, music production, hydroponic gardening, and entrepreneurship, much like the class Estrella attended.
The Girl Startup camp included practical lessons in market research, developing mockups and prototypes for the app, pricing and business models, and finally pitching in front of the rest of the campers, leading to a vote for the best idea.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without people in this community,” Estrella said, crediting a number of supporters including VentureLab, Geekdom, the 80/20 Foundation, and H-E-B. “I would never have gotten as far without any of them. I’d still just be some kid with an idea.”
Cristal Glanchai, founder and CEO of VentureLab, attributed the attraction to fund WeWalk to Estrella’s work ethic. “She’s worked so hard on this project for a long time,” Glanchai said. “They know she’s going to get it done.”
Estrella’s hard work is paying off. WeWalk will soon receive national attention when the Today Show airs its profile of Estrella, VentureLab, and WeWalk. Friday morning, a Today Show crew interviewed Glanchai and Estrella, though an air date has yet to be confirmed.
“I really hope it’s an inspiration for other kids who maybe have an idea and don’t know how to take it to the next level,” Glangchai said.
Estrella said much more is in the future, such as her goal to create an anti-bullying and online harassment awareness campaign in order for adults to know, understand, and address an issue they may not always be aware of.
“My goal is to just do anything,” she said, saying she wants to work in any field where she wants to see innovation and change.
Marcos Hernandez, Estrella’s father, said that Estrella was encouraged and supported when she was young, from the fields she was interested in to their insistence to think outside stereotypes and gender roles.
“The biggest classroom is outside the classroom,” Marcos said. “There have been disagreements, and I had to put my ego aside and let her be, but it’s helping her achieve her vision and understand that it’s possible.”
With avid interests in business, engineering, and industrial design, Estrella hopes to make products that are “not only innovative and help people, but are also economically feasible and aesthetically pretty.”
*Featured/top image: Estrella Hernandez, founder of WeWalk. Courtesy photo.