Longtime friends and Oxnard residents, Linda Nanez and Maria Zavala both have their hair cut in short bobs and wear sweaters, cherry lipstick and gold earrings.

They also both have diabetes.

That’s one diagnosis they’d rather not share, but it’s all too common in Ventura County, said T. Michael Murray, president of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, as he addressed Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, Nanez, Zavala and a handful of physicians, policy-makers and local residents gathered at the Oxnard hospital, Jan. 4.

The hospital’s Latino Healthcare League diabetes initiative will receive $390,000 in federal appropriations funding to help prevent and treat the epidemic disease, Capps said.

It’s a big commitment on our part and on the part of Americans, but it underscores the need," she said. "I think this will prove to be a very wise use of resources that the federal government has given us."

More than 20 million Americans will develop diabetes, said John Cortes, director of education, health ministries and healthy beginnings at St. John’s. In the Latino community, one in 10 people will develop diabetes, as compared to one in 20 in the general population. The need in Ventura County for diabetes education among physicians and patients alike is acute.

"This is a mission-driven process, and it’s one we have focused on for a couple of years now because it’s a big need in our community," said Murray.

Nanez, 66, and Zavala, 67, now understand the risks of not getting treated for type-2 diabetes, the form of the disease that is most affected by diet and exercise.

When Nanez was diagnosed eight years ago, she weighed 400 pounds and her blood sugar was dangerously high. "My doctor said, ‘I’m glad you came in because you could have gone into a coma,’" Nanez said.

After Zavala was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago, she decided to take action to restore her health. She joined the Energizer Walkers early morning exercise program with Nanez, and the two now walk for at least a mile three times per week, meeting at the Oxnard Boys and Girls Club with other walkers.

"I’m 67 years old, and let me tell you, I feel great," said Zavala. "But if I hadn’t taken care of myself, I might not have been here."

The federal funding will help diabetes educators hold another diabetes academy for physicians to learn about diagnosing and advising patients who are pre-diabetic or diabetic, said Cortes. Doctors, in turn will help educate patients about preventing type-2 diabetes and slowing the progression of the disease through diet and exercise.

A large portion of the money will also be used for youth outreach, through advertisements, fliers and school programs, said Cortes. He hopes to reach 50,000 Ventura County residents, especially those in Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Santa Paula.

"I’m very passionate about diabetes education, particularly with youth 9 to 13 years old who are pre-diabetic," Cortes said.

In Ventura County, the incidence of diabetes in Latinos between 18 and 44 is significantly higher than for other ethnicities of the same age group, Cortes added.

Capps, a former nurse, said it is essential to model healthy eating and exercise habits in schools and after school groups.

"If we don’t model well in our schools and public settings, how can we expect families who many not have a background in this to?" she said.

Still, Dr. Henry Montes, associate medical director for Ventura County Radiation Oncology Medical Group, said gaining federal funding is only a beginning step for diabetes education.

"There is obviously a void, and quite frankly, I think we’re just a very small fragment in filling that void," he said. "Prevention is our goal."