Valerie Velez Photo by Marshall Smith
Valerie Velez
Photo by Marshall Smith

Representative Dr. Raul Ruiz (CA-36) read into the Congressional Record a commendation of Idyllwild resident Val Velez for her work on behalf of students in the Hemet Unified School District.

Specifically, Velez was acknowledged for “her tireless efforts to preserve the Peer Leaders Uniting Students program that engages student leaders to address the social issues in their community. This year they have chosen to focus on eliminating social disparities in tobacco use in the local community of Hemet, California.”

As health education program specialist for the district, Velez is responsible for developing programs, accessing resources to fund the programs and presenting “evidence-based” strategies for the district to implement in launching these programs. With the PLUS program, Velez supervised the peer-to-peer program in which students are brought into the process of developing safe schools and communities by having them take ownership of outcomes on their campus and in their community. Participating students are coached in advocacy methods and policy issues to find innovative solutions on specific issues that create more welcoming and positive environments for all students.

With the HUSD PLUS program, students collaborated with the California Department of Public Health and the Hemet Community Action Network to demonstrate the detrimental effects of tobacco use, tobacco waste and second-hand smoke to create a “smoke-free parks” program in the city of Hemet. They created a PowerPoint presentation they gave to the Hemet City Council advocating banning tobacco use in all city parks. Students made their first presentation in October 2014 and then followed up in February 2015 with further advocacy. In March 2015, the Hemet City Council passed an ordinance banning use of all tobacco products in city parks.

Said Ruiz in his commendation of Velez, “I am pleased to recognize Ms. Velez for her service, and for being a champion for the PLUS program, in the face of budget obstacles. For her work and on behalf of the HUSD students, I applaud Ms. Velez on her dedication to make our community better and look forward to even more accomplishments in the future.”

Peer-to-peer programs, such as those Velez brings to the district, have been shown to promote bonding among participating students; foster resilience; promote social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and moral competence; and foster clear and positive identity and a belief in the future.

Velez has worked for HUSD for 23 years. During that time she has facilitated and supported programs that provide tobacco use prevention education for students in grades six through 12, that provide grants to support having counselors in district elementary schools, that help incoming high school freshman make effective transitions into high school, and that create and enhance positive school climates by creating consistent, calm and predictable environments on campus.

“I have always been a resource within the district, to staff and administration on health education topics, in addition to facilitating these specific programs,” said Velez. “My job has historically focused on substance abuse and violence prevention activities [within district schools].”

Velez has lived in Idyllwild since 1987, is married to residential designer David Lilieholm and has two grown children, Lucas and Anna, both of whom attended Idyllwild School, K-8. She holds a bachelor’s degree in applied behavioral sciences from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in public health (with an emphasis on health education and planning) from U.C. Berkeley.