By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A self-described “Philly girl,” Maria Pajil Battle is changing the game by stopping disease in its tracks.

“You can now avoid the illnesses, you can avoid the ERs,” says Battle, who runs the Amerihealth Caritas Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy communities.

Over the past few years, Battle has led the charge for creating faith-based programs that promote disease prevention and healthy lifestyles in underserved communities.

“When you look at someone who’s not healthy, it’s not because they don’t want to be healthy,” she says.   “It’s because they don’t know how, or because health is not their first priority.”

So Battle’s philosophy is, instead of waiting for people to come to health care, take the health care to the people.

One such program is Healthy Hoops, which uses basketball to teach kids about how to deal with asthma.  Battle says it’s a win for the community and a win for Amerihealth Caritas, which provides managed Medicaid plans to nearly five million people.

“Asthma is the costliest disease condition in the country,” she points out, “so it makes sense that we create more programs to deal with this disease state.”

Battle says every year children die from asthma attacks because they don’t know the warning signs.  Healthy Hoops teaches kids to “puff before they play.”

The initiative brings in pulmonologists and allergists who give kids a total asthma workup that they can take to their primary care physician.

According to a 2010 study, the program resulted in decreased school absenteeism, fewer emergency room visits, and improved quality of life for children.

“We have to do more,” says Battle, noting that the Healthy Hoops program only gets to abuot a thousand kids each year in Philadelphia — while 10,000 have asthma.

Through the partnership, Battle also takes on obesity, diabetes, breast cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, and other diseases plaguing African-Americans by teaching prevention in neighborhood churches through the Health Ministry program.

“When we have our program, we make sure [attendees] have transportation, we make sure they have child care,” says Battle.  “We make sure that they have everything covered that would prevent them from attending.”

In 2013, Battle worked to end disparities in health through the Health Empowerment Tour, which visited several Philadelphia churches, offering a 40-day journey to better health.   The effort brought in celebrity guest speakers, specialty chefs, and more, encouraging attendees to commit to better health for 40 days.

“They learned how to cook differently, they learned why exercise is important,” says Battle, “and it was great to see their ministers lead the effort.”

In addition to faith-based programs, Battle led efforts to raise funds to build playgrounds.  Since 2007, Battle helped build 24 playgrounds, 16 of them in Philadelphia.

“You bring joy to the neighborhoods,” she says.   “It creates a safe environment where children can come and get physical activity, which is an important part to building healthy communities.”

Battle says she wants to see the partnership do more, and change more lives.

“I get my rewards from the joy that people get from changing their lifestyle,” she says.

For more, go to

Hear the extended interview with Maria Pajil Battle in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 19:56)…

Watch Maria Pajil Battle’s Appearance On Talk Philly Here…

For more community affairs stories about “gamechangers” in your neighborhood, follow KYW community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg on Twitter.  You can also “like” her on Facebook.


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