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Sisters Helping Sisters lead healthier lifestyles

April 16, 2007

The Jack and Anna Hershey Education Center at Washington County Hospital has completed the first phase of its Sisters Helping Sisters program, a healthy lifestyle program for young women in Washington County.

Twenty-two program participants have attended Saturday morning workshops for the past seven weeks that have featured exercise programs and educational opportunities geared to help participants adopt changes that will lead to a healthier lifestyle. All of the participants are between the ages of 12 and 24, and are considered overweight or obese according to the standard body mass index calculator.

Sisters Helping Sisters was specifically targeted to young blacks in Washington County because of the health-care issues they face. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 32.9 percent of black women are obese, the highest rate of any ethnic group. Blacks are almost two times more likely to develop diabetes than whites, and 44.7 percent of black women older than 20 have high cholesterol.

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The program was developed by Washington County Hospital after receiving a $97,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women's Health. It is overseen by a steering committee, as well as two medical directors, Dr. Stephanie Brown of Robinwood Family Practice and Dr. Kia Tisdale of Women's Specialty Associates.

The program follows the Body Works curriculum from the Office on Women's Health, and focuses on small changes that can lead to big results. Each program session includes a class on nutrition, including food choices, cooking methods and food shopping, a 30-minute session of physical activity, and small-group sessions to help set personal goals and eliminate personal obstacles.

Screenings are also done periodically for blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides.

The Sisters Helping Sisters program is held in partnership with various organizations, including Memorial Recreation Center, which provided the space for the weekly programs; Hagerstown Community College; Washington County Free Library; Hagerstown YMCA; and Walnut Street Family Practice.

Participants received a four-month pass to Hagerstown Community College's Athletic, Recreation and Community Center, Internet instruction from the library and a three-month free membership to the YMCA. Representatives from Walnut Street Family Practice assisted with the screenings, and offered to accept any participants as new patients if they do not already have a primary care physician, whether or not they have insurance.

'Very motivated'

"The participants seem very motivated to understand what's behind their need to lose weight. I'm impressed with how enthusiastic they are as a group," said Dr. Barbara Haeckler, family practitioner at Walnut Street Family Practice.

Each participant is paired with a mentor who helps guide them through the program. Participants also receive incentives such as a free healthy breakfast or lunch, and free baby-sitting at each weekly program. They also receive a $10 gift certificate to a local merchant for each session they attend, and a $100 gift card to a merchant of their choosing is given at the end of the program to those who attended every class.

The baby-sitting services offered at each weekly session are provided by trained professionals from the YMCA and the Learning Center, Washington County Health System's child-care center. Stephanie Angle, a senior staff member at the Learning Center with more than 14 years of experience, said the children are provided healthy snacks and lunches, and play games that include an element of nutrition and physical activity.

Second phase

The second phase of the program will include four activities between April and June. The first is a supermarket scavenger hunt, during in which participants and their mentors will meet at a grocery store with a list of ingredients for various healthful recipes. They will be provided a $10 gift card to the grocery store for purchasing items on the list. Prizes will be awarded and participants will get to keep the food to prepare the meals at their homes.

The other three activities include a cooking class taught by Tim Higgins, clinical nutrition manager at Washington County Hospital; participation in the Arthritis Walk at Fairgrounds Park on May 19; and a picnic and walk at Hagerstown City Park.

Additionally, mentors will plan two outside activities with their participants each month.

"After a few weeks in the program, it is obvious that participants have learned something. Mentors are also learning a lot themselves and are very excited to be a part of the program," said Brown.

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