She Wants You to Have a Healthier Lifestyle

Edith Cabuslay presented a poster at the American Public Health Association on research conducted with Filipino youth. (Photo courtesy of Edith Cabuslay)

Edith Cabuslay presented a poster at the American Public Health Association on research conducted with Filipino youth. (Photo courtesy of Edith Cabuslay)

Hillary Clinton famously borrowed from a proverb she attributed to Africa, “It Takes a Village,” as title for her 1996 bestseller about her dedication to child care while first lady of the United States.

Fortunate is the village with access to resources promoting preventive health and a circle of care givers nurturing their young with an understanding of both environmental and biological impact on their well-being.


San Mateo County is one such “village.” With a health system crewed by many Filipino Americans among its policy makers, clinicians and analysts, it is able to implement programs with cultural and linguistic competence.

The county that’s home to Daly City, which hosts the highest concentration of Filipinos on the US mainland, has Health Systems Program Services Manager Edith Cabuslay as key to ensuring efficacy of messaging and methods to meet desired outcomes.

She feels the pulse, so to speak, of the 30-plus towns spanning her county, which has the highest property values in the nation juxtaposed with a growing population forced out of the housing and job market by the new wealth.

With the situation has emerged a new category, the Middle Income, or those with income a few dollars over the federal poverty level that disqualifies them from public assistance including health care.

The leading causes of death and disease in San Mateo County are heart disease, cancer, stroke and lung conditions.

Current federal poverty guideline is $21,130 annual income for a household of 2 or about $1,700 a month, per the US Dept. of Health & Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.  So how would a couple starting over or newly arrived survive in Daly City, where median rent is $1,769, according to Get Healthy San Mateo, a study profiling the diverse health, social and economic needs of residents?

“Poverty has a significant impact on health status and outcomes; individuals with lower incomes report poorer health and higher risk of disease,” stresses the same study, reinforcing the urgency of accessible services.

Cabuslay's role is to avert additional burden by leading the charge against unhealthy lifestyles.

For 25 years, Cabuslay has had her eye on the habits of the population, guiding policy to effect change for the better.

“I oversee the chronic disease prevention programs of San Mateo County. That includes tobacco prevention, nutrition and physical activity education, and asthma prevention. I also oversee the efforts that prevent alcohol and other drug use in San Mateo County,” said Cabuslay, who heads a staff of seven that she said mirrors the diversity of the population they serve.

“Every member of my staff represents a community that is experiencing the most adverse health conditions in San Mateo County,” she told Positively Filipino. “The unique insight of each staff member is used to better understand and build relationships in the communities we serve. Because of our diversity, we are able to use each other’s ability to reach specific communities to extend the reach of all our programs.”

A big fan of data, she’s been in their shoes.

"I wanted to work for an organization that gives me the opportunity to impact the lives of a lot of people. So I gravitated to government work. I got my first job in San Mateo County in 1994 working in tobacco prevention with a focus on the implementation of policies that promote a tobacco-free community," said the UC Irvine graduate in Biology who earned a master’s in Public Health from San Jose State University.

Her team tries to stop a problem before it starts by “youth development.”

"I believe that when youth have the information to make informed decisions for themselves, we will have better outcomes," she pointed to a program based on the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets or the positive supports and strengths proven to help the youth succeed such as family, school and community as well as the youths' values and commitments. 

Another program, Smoke-Free Start for Families, helps pregnant women and household smokers living with children from newborn to age 5 stop smoking through phone or group counseling.

The team aims for "health equity," which Cabuslay explains as identifying the communities "most heavily impacted by chronic diseases and alcohol and other drugs. "Then we work to understand the factors that contribute to the health behaviors of people in that community. Then we partner with organizations that serve those communities and work to build their capacity to address community issues within the community."

She doesn't have to look too far from the heartbeat of her constituency, allowing her to do in-reach as much as outreach.

Her own childhood informs her work. In the Philippines, where she was born Edith Superio in the 1960s, folks often are nonchalant about the hazards of smoking. Her family members are no exception, and she had a strategy for that too.

"I have had the hardest time convincing my own relatives in the Philippines that smoking is bad for them," she declares. " When my parents would go ‘home,’ my cousins would ask them to bring cigarettes and alcohol. As you know, American products are regarded highly in the Philippines, so American cigarettes and alcohol products are valued more than Filipino products in the Philippines. Since I kept taking the cigarettes and alcohol out of their luggage before bringing them to the airport, my parents learned to stop bringing them, and the cousins stopped asking for them. Small steps…"

The Iloilo native herself was lured briefly by the aura of sophistication that comes with locking a cigarette between index and middle fingers and lifting it to the lips to gasp in followed by puffing out a hazy plume.

"I tried smoking cigarettes when I was about 10 or 11 years old, because my cousins looked so cool doing it. The first time I tried it, I nearly coughed up my lungs! After failing with the second attempt, I decided smoking wasn’t meant for me,” she confided a quick lesson learned.

Other young experimenters may not be easily turned off and reach for a cigarette to "reduce stress" or for the perceived pleasure of it. Which leads to more issues, and not just for themselves.

Her team responds with "programs...focus on protecting families from harmful exposures to secondhand smoke."

"There are habits such as eating healthy or being physically active that are difficult for people to take on. Also, giving up unhealthy habits such as tobacco or drug use are difficult. We work with community leaders and organizations that work directly with community members so that our health promotion messages are being delivered through trusted members of the community," she shared.

"Our chronic disease prevention efforts seek to keep people healthy as they age. These efforts include working with people who have chronic conditions by helping them manage their conditions so they can remain independent."

From her perch in Belmont, she confronts the illnesses that threaten the county, including her community.

"Filipinos suffer from similar health conditions to the broader community," she noted. "The leading causes of death and disease in San Mateo County are heart disease, cancer, stroke and lung conditions."

The good news: "Because there is a significant number of Filipino health care providers in San Mateo County, Filipino community members in general report not having barriers to accessing services. 

As a ranking official of color in the County, Cabuslay admits to feeling duty-bound to bring in more representation from all the communities the County serves.

"This has meant having diverse staff members so that we are able to reach different segments of the community. We work hard to build relationships with community members and organizations that serve the different communities we serve, and having diverse staff members helps us build those relationships."

She may be the highest ranking Fil-Am employed policymaker in San Mateo County who is unaware of the statistical and historic significance of her post.

What concerns the daughter of a civil engineer father and an electronics worker mother is family.

"My master’s thesis looked into the filial responsibility felt by different generations of Filipino Americans towards their parents as parents get older," she bared her profound interest in data. She would still be probing the same subject as a researcher had she not found the ideal employer.

"Not enough research exists that speaks to the health of the different ethnic/racial communities served by health systems, and I feel compelled to try to contribute to that body of knowledge."

Her other passion is the education of her and husband PerkinElmer Pharmaceuticals application scientist Ronnel Cabuslay's children: Christian, 24, a PhD student at Drexel University; Antony, 21, a senior Chemistry major at UC Irvine, and Gabriel, 14, a freshman at Aragon High School. She coached their math teams when they were in grammar school.

San Mateo County Healthy System Program Services Manager Edith Cabuslay and husband Ronnel Cabuslay, an application scientist at a pharmaceutical firm, hiking at Pt. Reyes.

San Mateo County Healthy System Program Services Manager Edith Cabuslay and husband Ronnel Cabuslay, an application scientist at a pharmaceutical firm, hiking at Pt. Reyes.

Lately she has embraced a new cause that still aligns with her focus on youth plus a feminist streak.

Cabuslay became the first scoutmaster of the girl Troop 4027 in San Mateo with Scouting BSA. The formerly exclusively male organization called the Boy Scouts of America began welcoming girls early this year.

"Although I don’t have daughters, I have really appreciated the knowledge and skills that Scouting has provided my 3 boys and feel that girls should have the same opportunity to have knowledge and skills to be enjoy the outdoors, build character, and become leaders. In this scout-led troop, my role is to mentor and guide the leaders of the organization. I am very excited to be helping build the leaders of the future!" 

Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County Commission on Aging and executive director of nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She is editor at large of Philippine News, columnist for Philippines Today USA and contributor to Rappler and GMA News Online.

More articles by Cherie Querol Moreno