Pediatrician leads efforts in children’s health and development

Local mom, doctor says there is much to be done

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For Dr. Sophia Meharena, the glass is always half full, which is meant to say there is still plenty to do in serving young patients, volunteering at her children’s school to promote social and emotional development and being an active leader in the region.

Meharena, a Centennial resident, recently participated in a leadership panel hosted by Arapahoe Community College. In wrapping up Women’s History Month, the college hosted an event featuring Meharena and two other female leaders on March 30.

Meharena said she enjoyed participating in the college event, adding that all the women were impressive and she enjoyed seeing a diverse crowd filled with female students and faculty.

Meharena was nominated to participate on the panel by Susan Hill, a volunteer at Cherry Creek’s Indian Ridge Elementary School in Centennial.

Hill said the theme for this year’s Women in History Month was “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” Hill said the college event, sponsored by the Inclusive Excellence Council and the Student Life Office, was held to highlight the women in the region who continue to make a positive impact on the community.

“I nominated Sophia to be one of the three honorees and a panelist because she is a perfect example of providing healing and promoting hope,” Hill said. “Her profession as a doctor and associate director of the pediatric resident program at (University of Colorado Hospital) provides healing to children and families.”

Community Learning Program

In 2017, Meharena started the Indian Ridge Learning Community program at Indian Ridge. The program’s focus is to promote social emotional learning experiences for parents and children and, in collaboration with the school administration and staff.

Meharena started the program when her oldest child was in second grade. While her oldest is now in sixth grade, she has continued the program through classes with her younger children.

“I can say that Sophia’s leadership and passion for (social emotional learning) has created a community partnership between kids, families, and teachers of shared learning, collaboration, and exploration, as well as making space for important quality time together,” said Anji Hunt, the Indian Ridge school psychologist. “She has helped our students build necessary life skills and promote academic success. I am so grateful for her commitment and support of social and emotional growth for our community.” 

Hill said through two years of volunteering with the learning program, she has seen Meharena’s commitment to building relationships within the school community and that she recognizes the importance of helping students develop social and emotional learning starting at a young age.

“Her leadership has provided opportunities for parents, grandparents and staff to work together to identify areas in which we can learn and grow as individuals, as families and as a community,” Hill said.

For Meharena, she goes back to the glass is half full, knowing that there still is more to do.

Maherena said her goal in starting the program in 2017 was to bring people together to promote healthy emotional development and to do it at a community level where parents and administrators are right there learning with the students.

“We all face uphill battles no matter what age we are,” she said. “I think it is valuable to learn these skills together.”

Maherena said the program is aimed at watching the students grow and develop through third, fourth and fifth grades in elementary school.

Various workshops with themes have been held at the school over the last few years. Up until 2020, Maherena said they were able to host in-person workshops with parents and students several times a year.

When the pandemic shut schools down, Meharena said the program was halted but not forgotten. Meharena’s work is back on track with this year’s third-grade students. A workshop was held with nearly 10 families on March 18.

Indian Ridge Principal Matthew McDonald said, "Sophia’s work with engaging families through the Learning Community Program has been exceptional. The program is focused on giving parents and students continual opportunities to have fun together building and strengthening their foundation of healthy social and emotional skills, problem solving and self-advocacy skills, and overall mental health. She integrates the school into this experience, which has been invaluable. The adults learn and grow with the students, and everyone walks away with a deeper sense of community, which is incredibly important for students and their peers. Sophia has been masterful at valuing all voices, experiences, and perspectives in her work with the Learning Community Program, and has set the bar for how students, parents, and the school should work together in partnership."

A passionate professional

When she is not doing work to directly impact the community where she lives, Meharena is a pediatrician with Every Child Pediatrics. She is also the director of clinical outcomes.

At the medical practice in Aurora, Meharena sees her share of young patients who are either underinsured or not insured at all. Meharena started treating patients in Aurora in 2011, noting that it’s her sole job to date after graduating college in 2008.

In pediatrics, Meharena said, you cannot treat a child without taking care of the family too. In her office, it is not uncommon to treat families where English is not the primary language. To be able to do that effectively, Meharena speaks Spanish, English and Amharic.  

“For me, this is so much bigger than medicine,” she said. “As a pediatrician, you are helping a family. Whatever is going on with those kids is directly tied to the pressure and stress parents are living under as well.”

Equity matters everywhere

Meharena speaks about equity, and not just regarding race. Meharena said she is a proponent of equity in health care, food security and living a happy, healthy life.

With her patients, Meharena said, when both parents must work jobs that may be at night, children are left to cook dinners and fend for themselves out of necessity. In some cases, she sees issues with obesity because they may not be making healthy meals.

To help those families, in the past, Meharena has taken families on grocery shopping trips. Knowing their budgets, Meharena has spent time to educate families on what they can afford and what they can do with that food to make healthier meals.

Meharena said she has not been able to keep doing that as often as she likes, but said she constantly advocates to help families have access to everything they deserve.

That’s the role in which Meharena works on various boards, pushing to make sure those being impacted are represented at the table.

On her company website, Meharena is quoted saying, “All children — irrelevant of social, economic, or other status — deserve the chance to live a healthy life, and a pediatric provider who cares enough to help them try to achieve it. That is why I work at Every Child Pediatrics.”

While she serves on boards and participates in important community memberships, Meharena said she is unlikely to enter the political arena because at the end of the day, seeing her patients and helping families is right where she needs to be.

Cassie Littler, vice president of the Colorado Chapter of the American Academy of Petriatrics, said Meharena is at the forefront in leading her colleagues to improve the health and wellbeing of the state's infants, children, adolescents and young adults.

"Dr. Sophie, as her patients call her, has long been an advocate in and out of the exam room," said Littler. "The impact of her work is not only felt by the families whom she serves but by children all across Colorado. Sophia never rests as she constantly works to find solutions to the challenges and needs of all youth."

Mental health matters

As a leader in the community, last November Meharena participated in a special roundtable discussion hosted by Children’s Hospital Colorado. In the discussion, Meharena said the health care system is getting overwhelmed, noting that an alarming number of her own patients were having suicidal thoughts.

Meharena said parents are overwhelmed in not knowing what to do and the industry is overwhelmed because it does not have the facilities, resources or workforce to address the continually growing number of patients in need of mental health intervention.

“Without coordinated and consistent resources and access for all, we cannot have a sustainable system,” Meharena said. “Getting the mechanics right is key to a sustainable system to address the needs in Colorado. Investing in children’s mental health is investing in this country’s future.”

Meharena and regional experts agree the mental health crisis was already at an alarming level before the pandemic. When COVID-19 took hold of the world, the crisis boiled over and could no longer be ignored.

Meharena said it is becoming too common to get a report about one of her patients being admitted to a local hospital for mental health concerns. Her worries, Meharena said, is that her patients are not getting the right care or level of care because they keep being readmitted.

When asked if it’s too late, with wide eyes and the enthusiasm she shows in all her passions, Meharena said, “NO!”

“We are never too late in pediatrics,” she said. “With the right resources and help, kids are resilient. Kids can grow to be successful with the support and resources around them that they need.”

Meharena said she is hopeful that hospitals and state agencies are going to continue to work together to address mental health for everyone who needs it.

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